News | Biliterate is the new bilingual

McGill students’ French stagnates in all-anglo environment

McGill students seeking to integrate themselves into Quebec culture should strive for biliteracy, not simply bilingualism, according to a recent report released by a Quebec community group that represents the anglo minority in Quebec.

The report, Creating Spaces, was commissioned by the Quebec Community Group Network, and called biliteracy “a powerful tool to tackle many multi-faceted barriers English-speakers face in participating fully in Quebec society.” It also declared full biliteracy for Quebec youth as one of its top goals. Bilingualism designates functionality in both languages without specifying the user’s full capacity in either, and biliteracy is best described as full spoken, reading, and written fluency in two languages.

According to Gregg Blachford, Director of McGill’s Career Planning Services while functional oral bilingualism is probably most common in the workforce, biliterates have a much broader range of opportunities available to them.

But biliteracy is not valued as highly in McGill society as functional or even minimal bilingualism: upon graduation, many students seek careers outside of the province, where standards for English-French bilingualism are much lower.

Blachford noted that McGill may make an English life all too easy for students. Many, even those with backgrounds in French immersion programs, allow their French to stagnate in McGill’s anglo environment. This isn’t always evident, as McGill is located in the centre of one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities; fluency in two languages might seem like a given.

“Within the McGill ghetto walls… [students’] confidence and ability in French drops, despite Montreal,” Blachford said.

Low confidence in French is a common excuse for settling into an English rut and one of the greatest barriers to biliteracy, according to McGill Psychology professor Fred Genesee, who specializes in bilingual education and psycholinguistics.

“It’s a two-way street,” Genesee said. “The more you use [French], the more confident you’ll become.”

Students who can improve their French confidence and become functionally bilingual are in good shape. In Genesee’s experience, English to French bilinguals often have little difficulty segueing into biliteracy.

Blachford encouraged students to feel confident in their French, even if they perceive it as sub-par.

“Don’t giggle; don’t apologize; don’t signal bad confidence in your French,” Blachford said. “Know a few key phrases, some opening chit-chat, and don’t be self-conscious.”

Genesee noticed French students who come to McGill with little or no English background leave comfortable and confident with the language, bolstering both Genesee’s and Blachford’s conclusion that immersion is key.

Genesee also urged anglophone students to take full advantage of the opportunities in Montreal for obtaining biliteracy.

“[Biliteracy] is where the rest of the world is moving,” Genesee said. “Montreal has a good start; we just need to take advantage of it.”