The Liberal government of New Brunswick has puzzled and angered almost everyone - parents, teachers and language experts - by insisting on abolishing early French-language-immersion classes for anglophone pupils. The government says early immersion, currently an option for anglophone pupils starting in Grade 1, is not producing fluently bilingual graduates at the end of Grade 12.
It claims the $19 million it devotes to French-language immersion in early English education should be spent instead on dragging New Brunswick out of its current worst-in-Canada ranks in reading and mathematics.
Neither contention is persuasive, or even relevant. If the sole criterion for educational spending were the emergence 12 years along of perfectly-formed mathematicians, historians, essay-writers and French speakers, the temptation would be to shut down the school system altogether. No school system can guarantee such results.
And while it's an excellent sign that New Brunswick is ambitious for its pupils, to insist that funding for bilingualism be contingent on students persevering through 12 years of immersion is asking too much. In fact, it feels more like an excuse than a thoughtful criticism of the existing structure. Surely, if there are problems with the instruction methods, they could, and should, be solved with improved pedagogy and more, better-trained, teachers.
New Brunswick should proceed carefully through this minefield. For nearly 40 years now, it has been Canada's only officially bilingual province. As such, it is an important symbol in a country that too often is rent by language tensions.
New Brunswick is the province that could. Where bigger, wealthier provinces like Quebec and Ontario have dragged their heels and politicized the slightest concession to effective, successful second-language instruction, New Brunswick has blazed ahead. Until now.
Where is the evidence that the current immersion program is not producing results? In a recent Statistics Canada study on workplace language use, the federal agency found that the use of French in New Brunswick's economy had increased, just as it had in Quebec and Ontario.
This shows that even imperfectly bilingual New Brunswickers willingly use French on the job. The workplace is often the best place to perfect a language: Second-language speakers throw themselves into the effort more seriously than they might have done in high school.
Research is unequivocal that children learn a second language best at an early age. If New Brunswick's school system is failing to produce bilingual graduates, it is the fault of the system, not of the age of the pupils.
Quebec should be paying close attention to what's happening in New Brunswick. The moral here is not that second-language instruction is a difficult, expensive business with an uncertain outcome. It is rather that once people fully grasp the importance of bilingualism, they want it for their children.
Anglophone parents in New Brunswick and francophone parents in Quebec are rightly angry that their governments will not acknowledge how important it is for their children to master both of Canada's official languages. We should be the country that could. Instead, we're about to close down the most successful language lab we have.