Political interest in language is not a recent phenomenon. It dates back to Ancient Egypt. Psamtik, ruler of Ancient Egypt (664-610 BC) believed that the Egyptian language was the origin of all languages. In order to prove this, he conducted one of the earliest known deprivation studies. Psamtik asked a local shepherd to care for two newborn infants and to record the first words spoken by the infants. He further instructed the shepherd not to speak to the infants while they were in his care. In time, the infants uttered the word “becos”, which is the phrygian word for bread. Upon hearing this, Psamtik declared the Phrygian language (which closely resembles the Greek language) to be the origin of all languages. Rather disappointingly, he concluded that the Egyptian language was not the origin of all languages.
Modern day society has not progressed much since Psamtik’s time. Debates about national languages, language acquisition, and the teaching of language continue well into the 21st century, mainly because language is symbolic of nationhood, cultural identity, and equality among people. These ideological debates are often centered on the social value of language and the political need to enforce one language over another. Therefore, national languages are established and enforced within society by using political, institutional, and educational means. In the end, the power and authority used to apply the ideologies surrounding a nation’s language are eventually legitimized and normalized. These measures also give rise to societal problems and injustices. By restricting the use of certain languages in society, conflicts and inequality among different groups of speakers are created. Negative attitudes regarding certain languages surface along with a loss of social opportunity, personal dreams and individual potential. This is the situation that currently exists in Quebec.
Historically, Quebec nationalism emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s. The notion that Quebec is a distinct society with its French speaking majority, unique culture, and civil law was used as a legitimate argument towards the goal of creating a Quebecois nation. Gradually by means of legal and institutional measures, namely Bill 101, French became the language of everyday society and the use of the English language including access to English language schooling restricted.
Since the inception of Bill 101, the province’s overall graduation rate steadily declined, falling behind other Canadian provinces, despite million dollar initiatives and attempts at slowing down the number of students dropping out of school. Even with these initiatives, Quebec’s overall high school graduation rate remains the lowest in Canada, ranking in last place among the provinces. The 2015 Quebec graduation rate is about 8 percentage points behind that of Saskatchewan (the second worst ranking in the country), and about 13 percentage points behind the Canadian average.
The number of Quebec students graduating from public high schools in 5 years (on time) in 2015 stagnated at 64% . Furthermore, the number of Quebec students graduating from English language public high schools is significantly higher than those graduating from French language public high schools. Additionally the grades in French language education subjects was shown to be better in the English school boards, than in the French boards.
My interest in language acquisition, second language learning and social justice began by accident with my work as a neuropsychologist. As I tested student after student who were failing in the French language school system, a common cognitive profile was emerging. This observation along with the discrepancy in the graduation rates among the province’s two linguistic sectors, and the increasing influx of second and third language learners in our schools especially in the province’s francophone educational sector, raised many unanswered questions.
Quest for Answers
Is it possible that certain students lack the cognitive capacity required in order to succeed in second language instructional settings? Can a particular neuropsychological profile, at least in part, contribute to the discrepancy in the provincial high school graduation rate observed between the two linguistic sectors? Can the restrictive language laws aggravate a disability that might not have been problematic if the student was permitted to attend a school in the least restrictive environment that being English language schooling? Is Bill 101 responsible for the steady decline in the province’s graduation rates? Can this also explain why so many initiatives and attempts to boost the province’s graduation rate failed? Does the ministry of Education, school administrators, teaching and non-teaching professional have the necessary basic knowledge and understanding of the research on second language acquisition and learning in order to support struggling second language learners? Can in school professionals recognize and identify second language learners who are at risk of failing?
With my simple observations, my quest for answers began. Over the next several years, I delved into research on second language learning and acquisition. I read study after study mainly from the fields of psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, linguistics, and neurolinguistics for possible answers. I read up on various concepts and theories in the hopes to gain at least a minimal understanding of why so many second and third language learners are failing to succeed in the French language educational sector.
My observations and the many research based studies and theories I subsequently became familiar with suggests that certain languages are much more difficult to master than others, and that the level of second language proficiency needed to succeed academically is not universally acquired, especially among the nation’s most vulnerable students. Moreover, the implications between social and academic language is significant and these skills must not be confused with each other.
Much more relevant is the research based studies that point to a link between the individual’s cognitive capacity, anxiety level and their ability to acquire and master the second language to the level that is needed in order to succeed academically. Not only did this information provide an understanding of the common cognitive profile that emerged in my neuropsychological assessments, but it led me to conclude that Quebec’s language legislation, is at least partially responsible for the stagnating graduation rates in the province.
Based on these studies including my own findings, at risk second language learners can be easily screened and readily identified through specific testing geared to assess their underlying basic language and literacy skills. These struggling second language learners must be given the right to study in the least restrictive environment that best meets their needs. And this most often includes access to English language education. However, this is not what is happening in our schools. The practice of repeated grade level retention and/or repeated immersion into French language preparatory classes is not the answer and is contrary to best practices. Is it no wonder why many at risk students are leaving school without their high school diplomas?
At Risk Second Language Learners
It is clear that politicians, policy makers, schools, school districts and school boards have been slow to respond to the cultural and linguistic diversity that exists in our classrooms and are somewhat ignorant of the research that is readily available in the field. The evidence based knowledge and data that we now have on second language acquisition and learning rarely makes it way into the classroom. Sadly, at risk second language learners are not identified as such, and programs, policies and interventions regarding best practices are virtually nonexistent, while access to English language education remains mission impossible.
Counterproductive Classroom Practices
Unfortunately, it appears easier for administrators, teaching and non-teaching professionals to opt for traditional and counterproductive classroom practices. These practices often include offering remedial language programs that generally ignores the existing and growing body of research on second language acquisition, repeated grade level retention, repeated immersion into second language preparatory classes (better known as welcome classes), modification of the level of instruction or simply blaming the student and family for the lack of effort in developing proficiency in the language of schooling.
Tragedy For All
According to L. Jacques Menard (chair of the Groupe d’action sur la perseverance et la reussite scholaires and president of BMO Financial Group, Quebec) “… nearly one young person in three celebrates his or her 20th birthday without a high school diploma is a fact that should leave none of us indifferent, especially in a world where knowledge is the key to freedom and independence.” “Without laying the blame on anyone, it is time to acknowledge that all the studies we’ve consulted show that not completing high school is far too often a generator of poverty and reduced involvement in community life. In short, a tragedy, above all for the individuals concerned but also for society as a whole”. The drop out crisis costs Quebec taxpayers an estimated 1.9 billion dollars per year.
If our leaders are serious about reversing this downward trend, they must recognize Quebec’s current and future reality. They must acknowledge and understand the research data on second language learning and acquisition and how to better support our students. But above all else, they must take an objective and impartial stance and examine the effect that Bill 101 may have on our most vulnerable students if they want to establish a more equitable playing field and reduce the discriminating impact of our current educational practices.
 Rawlinson, G. (1909) History of Heroddotus. New York. The Tandy-Thomas Company. pp 208-209.
 The Enrollment Drop in Quebec’s English Schools. www://montreal-ctvnews.ca/the-enrolment-drop-in-quebec-is-english-schools
 Groupe d’action sur la persévérance et la réussite scolaires au Québec. (2009) “Savoir pour pouvoir: entreprendre un chantier national pour la persévérance scolaire.” Report, Montreal, pp. 67