Examining the contexts of language education in Canada and beyond

While bilingual, multilingual, and immersion education programs are common around the world, their structure and function have been changing in recent years. While Canada has a long history of offering educational programs in both official languages, new programs are being launched at home and across the globe to respond to an increasingly globalized society.

These programs offer students opportunities to engage in international language and culture courses in more intensive formats. For example, Immersion models often begin in elementary school with a large percentage (usually 100%) of the teaching and learning taking place in the second language. Bilingual program models can vary, but a 50-50 approach is common.

Dr. Sylvie Roy has partnered with researchers and schools from different counties to better understand some of these programs and their contexts. With work recently completed in Australia and Spain, Dr. Roy looked to gain a sense of who is participating in these newer programs, why they are choosing these options, and how these programs play out in their day-to-day realities. The researchers connected with schools in Calgary, Brisbane, and Valencia to uncover the structures and perceptions of bilingual programming in each area.

International Perspectives

Calgary, Canada
Canada’s French language programs are long standing across the country. In recent years, however, other bilingual programs have grown dramatically, as seen in the case of Alberta’s Spanish and Mandarin offerings. Unlike French immersion, these programs use a 50-50 model where English and another language are used for half of the instructional time each day.

Specifically, Spanish programs in Alberta grew out of a demand from parents for their children to benefit from learning a second language that is new and that will allow them to travel in countries where the language is spoken. Parents also reported that the 50-50 addressed concerns that their children may not learn English proficiently if they are enrolled in French Immersion. While this concern has not been confirmed in practice or in research, it is still notable for influencing parents’ perceptions and decisions.

In contrast, the Mandarin program began with Chinese parents who wanted their children to learn their heritage language, but the growing presence of China in the global economy has spurred further interest. Whether or not it is the language used at home, passing the language and culture on to their children was a significant factor for parents pursuing this program.

Brisbane, Australia – with Drs. Simone Smala, Karen Dooley & Margaret Kettle
Though an English-dominant nation, Australia’s education has seen bilingual programs emerge in both primary and secondary schools in the last few years.

The French program began as a parent initiative, which resulted in the creation of a French bilingual class in a primary school. French has been a typical second language choice for learners in Australia, which makes it a popular option. The program merges France’s curriculum with Australia’s, using methods and pedagogies from each country.

Interestingly, the Japanese program was begun by a school principal. The program began as a second language learning program for Australian children, but it is starting to attract heritage speakers. Japanese has been favoured in Australia given the trade links between the nations. The program is well-known and seen as highly successful, offering educational value that is not available elsewhere.

Valencia, Spain – with Dr. María Hoyos-Pérez
Enhancing communication skills in foreign languages has become a central focus of education programs throughout Europe. Seen as more and more relevant, creating these programs has prompted large-scale multilingual projects to be developed in the country, beginning in the early 2000s. Given the existence of many other official languages in the country’s autonomous communities (such as Valencian), previous efforts in bilingual education focused more on integrating Spanish and the other official language.

In Valencia, parents are able to choose between programs that are conducted in Valencian and Spanish. These programs also introduce at least one foreign language, usually English, emphasizing written communication. While French previously used as the most popular foreign language, English has been introduced as a common language both within the country and around the world.

Changing contexts

These studies highlighted that bilingual programs are emerging for a variety of different reasons, both within and across countries. Parental demand and choice, school initiative, and the influence of globalization are currently prompting an increased interest in bilingual education. The potential for these programs to improve students’ intercultural sensitivity, provide cognitive advantages, and practical linguistic skills is seen as a ‘value-added’ education for students – whether second language or heritage learners.

However, there are challenges in each of these contexts. One of the main challenge is the amount of hours allotted to language instruction. The diminishing number of hours as students move in the later years of the programs often hinders use. In addition, funding, teacher training, and the recognition teachers receive for participating in these highly involved programs is not always consistent. This means that running these programs as they were originally conceived is not necessarily feasible.

Government policy, school leadership, teachers, parents, and students each play an important role in shaping the context of language learning in these programs. These unique contexts each have their own challenges and successes, and learning from other contexts may help these programs to thrive.


See more from Dr. Sylvie Roy on her profile – please contact Dr. Roy for more information on this study


Connected Citations

Roy, S., & Hoyos-Pérez, M. (2017). Language pedagogy in bilingual and immersion programs in Spain and Canada: A Comparison Study. Paper published in the conference proceedings for the 11th annual International Technology, Education and Development Conference (INTED), Valencia, March 6-8.

Roy, S., Smala, S., & Dooley, K. (2017). Bilingual education in majority English speaking countries: Case studies in Australia and Canada. Paper published in the conference proceedings for the 11th annual International Technology, Education and Development Conference (INTED), Valencia, March 6-8.

Roy, S. (2015). Discours et idéologies en immersion française. Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 18(2), 125-143.