Kids Who Speak Mandarin or Punjabi Will Have An Edge In The World Economy, Education Official Says

A global view of learning
Kids who speak Mandarin or Punjabi will have an edge in the world economy, education official says

Janet Steffenhagen
Vancouver Sun
Published: Wednesday, February 06, 2008

French is fine, but parents who really want to give their children an edge in the global economy should be clamouring for Mandarin and Punjabi immersion in K-12 schools.

So says Emery Dosdall, a former B.C. deputy education minister who heads a new provincial government office charged with improving relations between British Columbia and Asia-Pacific countries.

His mandate includes promoting Asia-Pacific studies in B.C. schools, attracting more international students and opening new B.C.-certified schools abroad, Dosdall said in one of his first media interviews since he returned to B.C. in to join the education ministry.

He worries that B.C. parents, while keenly interested in French immersion, haven't recognized the opportunities with other languages. “French is great — it's our second language. But as a language of industry, I'd certainly recommend things . . . like Punjabi and Mandarin. They're going to [create] great opportunities for your children in the future.”

In many countries, Mandarin is being described as the “must-learn” language in light of China's new economic muscle, and students are reported to be flocking to language classes. Not so with Punjabi, which is not a major world language, although it is spoken in parts of the Lower Mainland.

French is the only immersion program currently available in B.C. schools and it's popular, especially at the elementary level. Province-wide, French immersion enrolments have climbed to about 40,000 from 32,470 five years ago.

While a number of schools offer classes in other languages, there appears to be little interest in non-French immersion.

Kim Howland, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said she's heard nothing from parents on the topic. “It isn't something that's been brought up by our members,” she said.

Several districts offer classes in Mandarin and Punjabi, but no immersion. Surrey, for example, teaches Punjabi in a number of high schools while Vancouver has the only Mandarin bilingual program in the province, at Jamieson elementary, and offers a Punjabi class at Moberly elementary.

Both districts say there's been little pressure to provide more.

“Many parents are asking for more spaces in French immersion, especially early French immersion. [But] there's no huge pressure or calls or petitions asking for more spaces in Mandarin or Punjabi,” Max Adrien, Vancouver district's language consultant, said in an interview.

The Mandarin program at Jamieson is for Grades 4-7 and, while it's not immersion, students who attend for all three years are generally comfortable in reading, writing and speaking the language by the time they graduate from the school, said principal Caroline Wallbridge. Students enrol for a variety of reasons, she added. Some have a particular interest in the Pacific Rim, some have family members who speak Mandarin and some expect it will help them with future jobs.

Kay Wang said she transferred her son from a private school to Jamieson to give him a link to a heritage she lost touch with growing up in Nova Scotia. Wang and her husband are both of Chinese descent and while he speaks Mandarin, she does not and so their home language is English

“I had very limited access to my heritage . . . and I really wanted to give my children an opportunity that I missed,” she said.

Yael Elron, who moved to Canada from Israel several years ago, has two children in the Mandarin bilingual program — including a son who could speak only Hebrew when he arrived in Vancouver, but picked up English quickly and is now learning his third language.

“It's a huge opportunity and a great brain trainer. It opens their minds to so many things,” she said, adding the fact that Chinese could be the dominant language in the future is another plus.

Richmond, with its large Asian population, offers Mandarin classes in several high schools but no immersion. The district considered offering immersion years ago but decided against it after realizing it would draw students with vastly different abilities — Mandarin speakers, Cantonese speakers and unilingual anglophones.

District curriculum coordinator Tony Carrigan said he can understand Dosdall's push for more Mandarin but isn't sure about the need for Punjabi immersion, given that it is not a major world language. Rather, he said, why not promote the more widely spoken Hindi or Spanish?

Surprisingly, the school district that is a Canadian leader in offering language instruction is Edmonton. Mandarin bilingual programs are available in 12 schools and have a total enrolment of almost 2,000 students. Mandarin is the language of instruction 50 per cent of the time in those schools, compared with 20 per cent at Jamieson.

Dosdall, a former Langley superintendent, was the top school official in Edmonton before moving to Victoria. He was a strong proponent of school choice and the Liberals, in hiring him, hoped to bring that philosophy to B.C.

While choice has expanded since then, the options here do not match those in Edmonton.

The Punjabi Language Education Association has been working for more than a dozen years to promote Punjabi instruction in B.C. public schools and has had pockets of success, especially in Surrey, Abbotsford and Merritt.

President Balwant Sanghera was heartened to hear that Dosdall is also promoting Punjabi language instruction, saying he has encountered several issues hampering further expansion. For example, he noted there are insufficient Punjabi learning resources with a Canadian context, and few B.C.-certified teachers who speak Punjabi.

Most of the students who study Punjabi are Indo-Canadians who want to learn the language to communicate with family members who don't speak English, but Sanghera said the courses offer opportunities for everyone.

“We live in a global village now, and India's economy is growing,” he said, adding that anyone wanting to do business in the Punjab would benefit from speaking the language.

Kanwal Neel, a Punjabi-speaker who is also a long-time Richmond teacher, said benefits from speaking Punjabi can also be found closer to home. “Many employers in Surrey are wanting their employees to be bilingual, and when they say bilingual it's English and Punjabi because that's what their clientele is,” he said.

“That's been a real boost for kids to learn Punjabi — and not only the Punjabi kids, but also the Caucasian kids.”

Gordon Comeau, chair of the Nicola-Similkameen board of education, said a Punjabi program began several years ago in Merritt in response to concerns from the Punjabi community that children were losing their ability to speak the language.

While it's been successful in his district, he said many districts wouldn't be able to offer such programs unless they received government funding. “In small communities you just don't have the numbers to drive the program.”

B.C. schools are required to teach a second language from Grades 5 to 8. Most offer French, but they can also teach Arabic, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish and a number of first nations languages.

Neel, who is on secondment to Simon Fraser University and helps Punjabi teachers gain B.C. certification, said Punjabi is a great language to study, but French is still a better choice for most students.

“I wouldn't go for Punjabi immersion but I would go for Punjabi as a heritage language or a second language. For French immersion, there's a lot more opportunity in terms of looking at where we are based in Canada.”

Nancy Taylor agrees. As B.C.'s spokeswoman for Canadian Parents for French, she says French continues to be the most popular and logical choice for the vast majority of students. Not only is it Canada's second official language, but French-language instruction is available in most communities so students who relocate can continue their studies uninterrupted.

As well, the federal government gives B.C. school districts about $8 million a year to help pay for French-language programs, and that doesn't include money given to the Conseil Scolaire Francophone for French-speaking students.

Other language programs don't qualify for similar support.

Mandarin classes are wonderful for families with links to China — or individuals seeking such links — but French is a more logical choice for typical B.C. students, she said. Although more people speak Mandarin than any other language, they are mainly in one geographic location while French is spoken on five continents.

“And of course this is Canada, and Canada's two official languages are very much on people's minds.”

Dave Thomas, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in international business, says studying a foreign language — any language — provides valuable insight into other cultures. But immersion, in Mandarin, Punjabi or even French, is only advantageous for those who plan to work in a specific environment.

“If we're talking about being able to deliver services to people who speak those languages exclusively, then certainly that's an advantage. But I'm not sure how many of us are going to be in that situation,” he said in an interview. In the case of French, there are benefits for those who want a career in federal politics or public service.

International business dealings generally involve a variety of countries, cultures and languages, Thomas noted. One could deal with a Mandarin-speaker one day, a Punjabi-speaker the next and a francophone after that, so learning one language well wouldn't be a significant benefit.

Furthermore, studies have shown that there are tremendous benefits from knowing enough words in a foreign language to exchange pleasantries, but few added benefits from speaking the language moderately well. More significant benefits accrue only when one is completely fluent, he added.

Although English is still considered the lingua franca of international business, many suggest Mandarin will eventually claim that title. China has been aggressively promoting the use of its language abroad since 2004 through such measures as the establishment of Confucius Institutes in cities around the world.

Vancouver has one at the B.C. Institute of Technology. There are three others — in Moncton, N.B., Sherbrooke, Que., and Calgary — with
a fifth soon to be set up in Edmonton and operated by the Edmonton public school district.

Sun education reporter

Read more about B.C. education at aspx

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