By: Daniel Cress
Kathleen Ferguson, a first-year developmental services student at Algonquin College, knows all too well how a lack of French language abilities can hold a student back, especially in a region like Ottawa.
“When I applied at a retail outlet I wasn’t able to get the job because I’m not bilingual,” said Ferguson. “It was kind of discouraging, to miss out on that opportunity.”
Ferguson is not alone in being turned down based on her inability to converse in French, rather than her qualifications.
The percentage of Canadians who can hold a conversation in both English and French is falling behind the population growth, statistics show.
This trend has Canada’s Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser recommending that new programs be put in place to double the amount of students who take exchange programs, as well as providing post-secondary students with more opportunities to study in both official languages.
For many students bilingualism is the difference maker when it comes to finding employment opportunities, and that’s an area these recommendations look to address.
“I wasn’t fluent but I worked in a French first government office on a casual contract and when I decided to go back to school the position was upgraded to a higher level of required French, so even if I wanted to apply for my old job again, I technically couldn’t interview for a position I had already held,” said second-year radio broadcasting student Gill Proudfoot.
Proudfoot also worked at a staffing organization and repeatedly found qualified candidates were being passed over because they could not speak French.
“We would find people perfect for the job, who knew everything or had work experience, but couldn’t submit them because they weren’t fluent,” said Proudfoot.
While many students realize the importance of being fluent in both of Canada’s official languages now, they admit it seemed expendable earlier on in life.
“I took French from grades one to 10 but after that gave it up because the programs and teaching just weren’t there,” said Rowan Morkis, a second-year game development student at Algonquin.
“How I was raised speaking [French] wasn’t a huge deal, I didn’t live in a French area so I just didn’t need it,” said Ferguson.
With the proximity to Quebec and the presence of so many government jobs, bilingualism is highlighted in Ottawa.
This focus is mirrored in its post-secondary institutions.
“We actually offer a great deal [of programs], that if a student really took advantage of all the courses we offer, by the end of the two years that they’re here with us they would really be bilingual,” said Silvia Garcia, acting chair of Algonquin’s language institute.
Algonquin offers beginner to advanced French continuing education classes. These classes run concurrently with regular program classes.
“Knowing another language and being able to express yourself in another language just expands your vision of the world, because it allows you to think in a different way,” said Garcia. “It enhances your repertoire of responses.”
Other post-secondary institutions in the area such as La Cité Collegiale and the University of Ottawa also offer entire programs of study to students.
These programs however require a solid base in the language.
“If you’re struggling to learn the basics of the program, then adding a new language on top would be tough,” said Nathan Elliott, a second-year game development student at Algonquin.
Requirements of fluency in both languages are not rigid across the board however, and can depend on the job.
“I haven’t found difficult yet only speaking English,” said Dakota Barnhardt, a third-year engineering technology student. “It depends on where you work, if you know your stuff in the trades, the job gets done, whether you speak French or English.”