Tsek’ene, Farsi, Punjabi, Tagalog: The push to diversify languages in schools

June 3, 2022

Nine-year-old Armiti Atayi takes private Farsi classes, but would rather learn the language at her West Vancouver public school in a classroom with all her friends — something that may be possible one day, if the Education Ministry approves a new proposed Farsi curriculum.

“So when I go back for a vacation to Iran, I can read signs and read books and watch Persian TV, and cartoons,” said the Grade 3 Westcot Elementary student.

Her father, Omid Atayi, argued it is “long overdue” for Farsi to be offered in public schools given B.C.’s fast-growing Persian community.

“That would be a dream come true,” Atayi said. “We want our kids to be close to our culture, so establishing meaningful connection through language. … So they can read books, read poems, and write their own name. And a good example would be when they travelled back home (to Iran), they can communicate in an effective way with their relatives, or children their own age.”

Dad Omid Atayi, mom Mozhgan Aghajanian, and daughter Armiti, 9, in West Vancouver. (Arlen Redekop / Postmedia staff photo) PHOTO BY ARLEN REDEKOP /PNG
If the Education Ministry accepts the new proposed Farsi curriculum developed and approved last month by the Coquitlam school board, it will become the ninth language, in addition to English and French, for which the province has official course guidelines. The others are French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish and American Sign Language.

The province also has curriculum for 18 First Nations languages, and the Education Ministry said in an email that more are “in development.”

Three additional languages are offered in a tiny number of districts using “locally developed,” as opposed to ministry-approved, curriculum, such Russian in Prince George and the Comox Valley, Arabic in Victoria, and Croatian in Burnaby, although there is not always enough demand to run these courses every year.

Most of B.C.’s approved languages, with the exception of English, French and Spanish, are taught in only a small number of schools, where there is sufficient interest from students and enough qualified teachers.

During this 2021-22 school year, just 34,000 students took a secondary language that wasn’t English or French or who weren’t involved in an immersion programs, according to Education Ministry data provided to Postmedia. That is less than 10 per cent of B.C.’s 564,000 elementary and secondary students.

In B.C., all students must take a second language in Grades 5 to 8, unless they have so-called diverse needs, receive English-as-a-second-language services, or are in an immersion program. French is the default language if a district offers no alternatives, the ministry says. Second languages in high school are optional.

Nearly one third of B.C.’s 60 school districts didn’t offer a secondary language course beyond English or French in the 2021-22 calendar year. However, the ministry says courses run by districts fluctuate year by year based on enrolment.

The Vancouver school board, for example, ran second language instruction in French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese and Italian this year, and in past years has also offered Korean, German, Russian and Punjabi. The VSB also operates French and Mandarin immersion programs.
After French, Spanish was the most popular secondary language, with more than 20,000 students enrolled in two thirds of boards across B.C. Punjabi as a second language, by comparison, was offered in just six districts and had just 2,125 students taking it this year.

About 11 of the 18 Indigenous languages were taught this year to a total of 1,515 students in a handful of schools, the vast majority of them in the north, on Vancouver Island or in the Interior. The most common were 233 students taking Kwak’wala in the Campbell River and Vancouver Island North districts, and 219 students studying Secwepemctsin in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and Kamloops-Thompson districts.

Chilliwack appears to the closest city to Metro Vancouver to offer an Indigenous language, with 106 students studying Halq’eméylem this year. The Vancouver school board said in an email, though, that it is working with the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations with an aim to one day offer programs in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Skwxwú7mesh languages.

Statistics Canada says B.C. has the largest number of Indigenous languages, but they are spoken by an increasingly small number of people.

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