Walking down Yonge Street a couple of weeks ago, I found myself surrounded by yellow cabs and NYPD vehicles — yet another filming crew pretending that the 6ix is interchangeable with the Big Apple.
However, there is one clear difference between Toronto and New York: while the US has no official language, Canada’s Official Languages Act stipulates two co-official languages of the land, English and French. Nevertheless, as an international student at U of T, I find it hard to honour the equal dignity of the two languages. U of T does have an English language learning program for students who struggle with the language, but the university does not provide anything similar for the other official language of Canada.
Both current Governor General Mary Simon’s and Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s inability to speak French has sparked controversy. Even Ontario Premier Doug Ford lacks proficiency in French, which has been the subject of memes on the internet. Hence, a strong command of both English and French seems to be expected, if not strictly required, for leadership roles in this country.
Many parents across Ontario send their kids to French immersion schools or make them learn French at school. However, many international students have never gotten opportunities to learn French. Thus, the government incentivizes aspiring Canadians to learn both English and French. By mastering both official languages, international students can pave their way to better jobs and immigration benefits, if they wish.
However, U of T fails to provide us with appropriate resources to learn the French language in non-academic settings. The French department does perform its job well in that it provides French courses for beginners, like FSL100 — French for Beginners.
However, these courses are designed for academic purposes. As the co-official language of the land and the mother tongue of vibrant francophone communities across Canada, French should mean more than credits to U of T and its students. Introductory French courses being 100-level and counting toward GPA may deter students with a full course load or a suboptimal cumulative GPA from taking them.
As a former student in FSL102 — Introductory French, I know that the course does not allow auditing — students going to lectures without enrolling in the course formally. As a result, students’ options to learn French are further limited. Furthermore, I did not have much opportunity to speak and write in French in that course. The academic nature of the course may make it hard for students aiming for day-to-day proficiency to take away what they need.
Personally, I would love the opportunity to learn French, both as a way to know the country better and to help my future plans. However, a proper academic course feels like a major commitment and not all too helpful.
One might point out that there are many ways to learn French by myself. They are not wrong. I have tried Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and CBC’s Mauril, but the former two do not provide help with Canadian French. Since we are in Canada, it would be asinine not to make use of the country’s rich linguistic diversity, which allows residents to practice different languages in their everyday lives.
As an avid language learner, I can attest that learning a language is much more fun when you make friends in the process and do not have to worry about your grades. I would suggest that U of T launch a French language program for students who do not wish to pursue an academic course in it. The program could be structured similarly to the current one offered to students who aren’t native speakers of English.
McGill University, an anglophone university in Montréal, currently offers non-credit French programs and activities through its French Language Centre and student unions. However, given that Toronto, unlike Montréal, is not a francophone city, the local student body is less likely to be familiar with linguistic resources for French learners. The university, on the other hand, has sufficient academic resources and experience to deliver French language programs. Therefore, U of T should still take on the responsibility of establishing non-credit French programs.
In June 2021, the federal government tabled Bill C-32, in an endeavour to deliver on Canada’s promise to be a multicultural society with two official languages of “substantive equality.” For students wishing to work in the government or other public sector positions, learning French may be a matter of great importance. Especially for incoming international students, U of T should stress the importance of the French language and provide students with the necessary resources to gain proficiency in the language, even if just for the sake of their careers.
Anthonie Fan is a second-year ethics, society, and law student at Trinity College.