Bill 96: Frustration & anxiety over loss of foreign language courses at English CEGEPs

“This plan basically decimates the foreign languages department. It means that if you come to an anglophone college, you can’t learn Spanish or Mandarin. Those two languages alone represent 20% of native speakers in the world. Why would we want to limit the education people can get?”

One of the unforeseen consequences of Bill 96 and the requirement that students at English CEGEPs take three additional courses in French has been that foreign language courses are now likely casualties. Since foreign-language courses do not satisfy the requirements to be considered a course “taught in French,” they are expected to be cut from the list of courses offered in English CEGEPs — an outcome that has both teachers and administrators concerned about what this means for their students, as well as possible job losses for CEGEP staff. 

Starting this fall, those who don’t have an eligibility certificate (mostly francophones and allophones) must pass a French exam to graduate from an English CEGEP. Most anglophones with a certificate will be exempt from the French exam but will still be required to take at least three of their core program courses in French, plus two French language-learning courses. To make room for those courses, something will have to go. And since foreign languages aren’t eligible to be taught in French, they’re the ones most likely to be dropped. 

The government isn’t listening 

“My understanding is that, currently, Dawson and John Abbott’s administrations are working on the premise that all complementary courses will be given in French,” says Christina Chough, a Spanish teacher, and chairperson of the Modern Languages department at Dawson College. “Since the Ministry of Higher Education says that one cannot teach foreign languages in French and have that qualify as a French language class, there would therefore be no room for foreign language courses.” 

Maria Mastorakos, a physics teacher and Vice-President of the John Abbott College Faculty Association, worries the government’s lack of consultation is penalizing students and administrations. 

“This plan basically decimates the foreign languages department,” she says. “It means that if you come to an anglophone college, you can’t learn Spanish or German or Mandarin. You can’t take these language courses anymore.”

“The easiest thing to do is to make all complementary courses in French because it tries to create some sort of equity for all students in a CEGEP network that’s now two-tiered,” says Chough. “But how do you maintain equity in a two-tiered system? It’s impossible. So, the biggest losers will be languages, mostly because everything can be taught in French except for languages.”

Mastorakos says English CEGEPs did come together and speak to their French departments, because their French departments are the ones most affected by this. They proposed two 60-hour courses and a third course that was optional to prepare for the exam, but the ministry insisted on three mandatory courses. 

Unrealistic timelines

“We don’t feel heard at all,” says Mastorakos. “Our departments are second-language French departments. That means most of our teachers have literature degrees and PhDs, but most of them are trained as second-language teachers. Being a second-language teacher and being a literature teacher are two separate things. Our French departments are suddenly burdened with teaching three new courses they only got the competencies for last week to prep for next fall. That is an extremely short timeline. It’s almost an impossible timeline.” 

Mastorakos says teachers are overwhelmed. “They have an enormous amount of work before them and an enormous amount of pressure because, if they get it wrong, if they don’t get these courses right, they’re going to be scapegoated that they didn’t teach them French well enough. They’re just in this impossible situation.”

Mostly, she says, teachers and administrators aren’t getting the information they need far enough in advance. 

“When people ask me how this is going to affect their department, because people are worried for their jobs, I don’t know. I have no idea,” Mastorakos says. “And every time we push the government for information, they say they’ll get back to us. If I need to develop a course, I need to know what you want me to teach in that course. And if you don’t give me that information, I can’t prepare anything. I don’t think students know, I don’t think the parents understand, and part of it is that we can’t give people information because we don’t have the information to give.” 

Despite constant delays by the government, the strict timeline remains. 

“We can’t do what you’re asking if you don’t give us the information that we need,” says Mastorakos. “If you’re going to be inflexible in your demands and the timeline imposed on us, then on your end you need to stick to your own timeline.”

Mastorakos isn’t necessarily blaming the Ministry of Higher Education. “I don’t want to point the finger too much at the Ministry of Higher Education because if they’re delaying with the competencies, it’s probably because, like everyone else, they’re overworked and also trying to figure it out. This isn’t really on the Ministry. This is very much on the government.”

“A political tool, not a pedagogical tool”

The government’s lack of consultation and lack of analysis of the impact on students and teachers has caused a lot of anxiety, stress and uncertainty about the future for teachers, who feel they’ve been given directives and timelines that make no sense. 

“College administrations are trying to figure out how to implement Law 14,” says Chough, “but Law 14 is a political tool, it’s not a pedagogical tool. Colleges are trying to figure out how to add three additional courses of French or in French to grids that have been long established or undergone multi-year revision processes. In contrast, we’ve only had three to six months to redo the academic plan to include three courses. For most administrators, the easiest thing to do it just to take away one complementary course and make it a French course. The criticism doesn’t lay with my administration or any of the colleges because I really feel that they’re doing the best with what they have. But what they have is very little. They’re trying to implement a law that doesn’t make any pedagogical sense because not one pedagogue was ever consulted.”

The lack of consultation is particularly egregious for Mastorakos, who says it’s indicative of the lack of respect teachers are often shown.  

“In general, society-wise, people don’t take into consideration the expertise of teachers,” she says. “There’s this idea that we just show up and are just able to teach things magically, that there’s no preparation needed, no work to build a course. But there’s a lot of prep required. The reality is that we’re the ones in the classrooms every day with our students. We see how they perform, we see where they struggle, where they do well. We’re the ones, and institutions are the ones, that understand how CEGEPs work. And right now, the government is trying to bulldoze something through. These are top-down decisions, where they just tell you to ‘make it work.’ It’s not at all democratic.”

The lack of a reasonable timeline is one of the major points of contention right now. 

“It’s one thing to implement three courses over three years,” says Mastorakos. “That would still be hard, but it’s gradual. Just to offer a perspective, two of our biggest programs (social science and science) are being revamped for the first time in 20 years and it’s been a five-year process. And the implementation of these changes is happening over two years. And somehow, we need to now change all our program grids, and all our programs in this short timeline. It’s just du jamais vu.”

“A program revision for a program that already exists, to make sure it’s comprehensive, cohesive and up-to-date, generally takes two years,” says Chough. “Law 14 passed in June of 2022. And no one received any kind of game plan until the end of the summer. We have less than a year to put everything in place to have everything rolling smoothly in place this August. It’s hugely unrealistic. “

“If the government really wanted this to be a way to improve anglophone students’ understanding and comprehension of French,” says Mastorakos, “then why wouldn’t you give us the resources and timelines we’re telling you that we need to make this happen properly?” 

Curriculum changes should target younger students

Chough agrees. “Law 14 came from good intentions but was very poorly executed. The entire National Assembly is at fault right now in creating a law that makes no pedagogical sense.” 

She says these changes should have targeted younger students.

“If you feel speakers are not competent in the officially recognized language of the province, it’s an issue the Ministry of Education should be looking at, not the Ministry of Higher Education,” she says. “If students don’t speak fluent French by the time that they’re 17 or 18, they’re not going to speak fluent French by getting three additional courses over a two-year period. That’s not how language acquisition works. You need to scaffold their education in such a way that they’re able to deal with the things that are being presented at a post-secondary level and they need to have the language skills to deal with those issues at a post-secondary level. This is backwards. This is the funnel being flipped upside down and, in my opinion, it’s never going to work.”

Chough believes a longer timeline would have also given high schools time to better prepare students for a new reality. 

“Right now, we have students coming in just being used as guinea pigs,” she says, “and it’s only once when they realize what a miserable failure this is that they might walk back some of it or maybe change the timeline or the structure, but by this time there will already be students who’ve been victims of it.”

It’s not the law itself, but its implementation that concerns these educators the most. 

“Debating the merits of the law is secondary because the law is here and we have to deal with it,” says Mastorakos. “But from the beginning, we’ve asked the government to give us longer timelines. Administrations and faculty unions are often at odds with each other, but this is one area where everyone agrees. We don’t have enough time, we don’t have enough resources and nobody seems to care. There’s a feeling that they’re setting us up to fail.”

“Imagine if someone told you that you had to get to Chibougamau, but you didn’t have a car or a map,” says Chough. “How are you going to get there? Because this is what this government is doing. It’s asking us to get to a destination without any vehicle, any support or a map to do it. At least if you had a map, you could start walking in the correct direction, but we don’t even have that.”

Foreign languages are an asset

Chough says teachers and administrations started making a lot of noise once they realized foreign languages would be on the chopping block. A petition is also currently circulating. 

“It’s absurd to not teach foreign languages and expect students to become global citizens,” she says. “At Dawson, Vanier and John Abbott, we all teach Mandarin and Spanish. Those two languages alone represent 20% of native speakers in the world. It seems very inconsistent with the ministry’s objective of creating world citizens not to teach foreign languages. Why would we want to limit the education people can get?”

Chough says language teachers are not against French. “On the contrary, most of us use both French and English in the classroom at anglophone institutions because both languages help us teach languages more effectively. Bilingual learners are better learners in general of foreign languages. And the reason is that every language that you learn improves the languages that you already speak. More French being taught isn’t the issue. It’s the way that it’s being implemented.”

In essence, Law 14 penalizes English CEGEPs and creates a two-tiered educational system where students at francophone CEGEPs will continue to have access to courses that students at anglophone institutions no longer will. 

“To those who say, ‘Well, just go to a French CEGEP,’ I would make the argument that part of the idea of English CEGEPs is that we are here to serve the English-speaking population, people who, by law, are allowed to be instructed in English,” says Mastorakos. 

“We arguably exist to provide them with an education. That’s what our mandate is. If anglophone students have the right to be instructed in their own language, then why, by going to the school that they have a right to go to, are they now being penalized by not being able to take a third language? Their education is being impacted.” 

The most vulnerable affected

Badly implemented legislation will also impact students with additional obstacles to contend with, says Mastorakos.

“People sometimes forget students with learning differences, who may have a harder time learning a second language,” she says. “We forget them in this discussion on how all anglophone students should speak French. Yes, it’s true, but we also have a mandate to educate all anglophone students regardless of their abilities in French.”

“I’ve spoken with my colleagues and other chairs of other CEGEPs in the Montreal area, and we all agree that three years of a pandemic was detrimental,” says Chough. “We have students whose learning curve was gravely disrupted, students who are not where they’re supposed to be, and now we’re adding something extra to that. The pandemic was an outside force that worked against students and now the government has chosen to impose an additional challenge on them, and this hurdle may not be one they’ll be able to overcome easily. All parents should be really concerned — francophone, allophone, anglophone — about how this government treats our students and what they’re doing to ensure that our future is successful, because this is certainly not it.”

Ministry response 

In response to my questions, Quebec’s Ministry of Higher Education sent this statement.

“Some foreign language courses, like several other courses, are currently taught in the complementary general education. Therefore, the new Charter requirements will have an impact on the General Education strand. On the other hand, various programs, such as the Arts, Humanities and Communication program, will still be able to offer foreign language courses.

“The ministry is aware of this situation and is working closely with the colleges to analyze the impact on course offerings in general education.

“Since June 2022, the ministry has been working closely with leaders of English and French colleges and organizations representing private colleges on the practical application of the provisions of the law. The ministry has therefore been working with the colleges for several months to ensure the timely implementation of the Charter of the French Language.”

Uncertainty looms

“Everyone who is not the government is doing their best,” says Mastorakos. “The administration, the teachers, the Ministry of Higher Education, we can all kind of point at each other, but everyone is trying to figure it out as best they can. The people who came up with these laws have no idea how CEGEPs work. They passed a law, gave us a timeline, but don’t understand our reality.”

“I’m finishing my 24th year in teaching foreign-language acquisition at a post-secondary level,” says Chough, “and my experience has shown me that you can teach students to become extremely proficient, but if you’re going to do that, you need to dedicate a lot of time to language acquisition and not just throw courses at them at this sort of level that aren’t sequential, that don’t build on skills or any communication objectives. This is just willy-nilly.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.