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

Students can study 18 Indigenous and 12 International languages, but not in all schools. There are calls for more options as B.C. diversifies.

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.”

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 as 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.

“I would love to see the province provide more support towards the revitalization of Indigenous languages within British Columbia, because it is the province that has the highest number of varied Indigenous languages and they are at risk,” said Rome Lavrencic, a New Westminster French teacher who has been on a B.C. Teachers’ Federation languages committee for 16 years.

Lavrencic said he recently met with officials from various universities and colleges who indicated there is renewed interest from students to learn Indigenous languages, but the challenge at the post-secondary level is the same in high schools: The classrooms need to be full, or it is not financially feasible to run the courses.

Another challenge to offer these programs is finding enough books and other teaching resources. While the federal government provides extra resources for French courses, Lavrencic said, “the minority languages, like Japanese, German, Mandarin and Punjabi, don’t get as much in terms of recognition and funding.”

Despite those shortcomings, B.C. should offer even more languages in its schools, such as Tagalog from the Philippines, argued Lavrencic, president of the BCTF’s Association of Teachers of Modern Languages.

“There’s so many different benefits from learning a foreign language,” added Wendy Yamazaki, a Japanese teacher in Delta who is treasurer of the BCTF language committee. “It just gives you that global perspective, that understanding of cultures and understanding of other people in different areas.”

In response to questions about whether B.C. will introduce more languages in public schools, the ministry said it is up to teachers and community groups to first develop new language curriculums that they would like to see taught. It is also up to districts to recruit the required teachers, but the ministry says it does provide some assistance.

Twelve years ago, Coquitlam started a Mandarin immersion program. Abby Chow was part of that inaugural group of students, and is now in it first graduating class.

Although her parents do not speak Mandarin, the Grade 12 student at Gleneagle Secondary School leaves the public school system able to speak it fluently.

“It will open a lot of doors if I want to study an international language or travel in Asia,” said Chow, who will attend the University of B.C. next year to study science and play on the golf team. “I’m super grateful.”

Coquitlam is one of a very small number of B.C. districts that offers Mandarin immersion and the program often has a waiting list, said Sophie Bergeron, Coquitlam’s language and culture coordinator.

“Mostly due to a shortage of teachers, we cannot expand our program, even though we have more demand than we have space for students,” she said, adding the same is true for its French immersion classes.

Her district became the first in B.C. to approve the new Farsi curriculum, which was developed by teachers from Coquitlam and Surrey, with help from a Simon Fraser University professor. It is now under review by the province, which will decide later this year whether it meets all requirements to become an authorized language course, the ministry’s email said.

Bergeron said Coquitlam doesn’t plan to offer Farsi courses in the near future, mainly because of a shortage of Persian teachers and timetable challenges. However, the district sponsored the curriculum in the hope that Farsi could one day be added to the list of languages that Grade 11 and 12 students can “challenge,” meaning if they speak the language fluently, they can write an exam and earn a high school credit.

“Hopefully a challenge exam will be developed so those students will at least have one way of having their (Farsi) language recognized for credits,” Bergeron said. “Maybe another district would be willing to go” with classes.

And that’s the exact outcome hoped for by Amir Bajehkian, who founded Farsi dar B.C. five years ago to lobby for his native language to be taught in schools. While he is grateful that Coquitlam sponsored the curriculum, he hopes classes will be offered on the North Shore, where B.C.’s largest Persian community lives.

“Our main focus is on North Vancouver and West Vancouver school districts,” he said, adding one of the key reasons is the number of readily available Farsi-speaking teachers there.

Bajehkian has spoken with the districts, and has asked them to consider offering Farsi courses in Handsworth and Carson Graham in North Vancouver, and West Vancouver Secondary and Sentinel in West Vancouver.

“I think this is a great move in the right direction,” said North Vancouver’s assistant superintendent, Chris Atkinson. “I think it’s important for students to see themselves represented in the curriculum. … It helps build a diverse culture in the schools.”

While he said Handsworth and Carson both have large Persian student populations, he cautioned there is a lot that needs to happen before students will be sitting in a Farsi classroom. Assuming the ministry approves the curriculum, high school principals must then decide if they have enough teachers and students, and then must find room in their timetables.

The earliest Farsi could be offered is September 2023, Atkinson said.

The West Vancouver district said it would examine the Farsi proposal in the coming year.

Bajehkian estimates there are as many as 90,000 Iranians and up to 30,000 Afghans in the Lower Mainland, and said those numbers are growing. And he is proud that the two communities came together to create and lobby for this curriculum.

“Having the Farsi speaking community, Iranians and Afghans, in Canada, and B.C. particularly, we’re getting to a point that we’re becoming more established. And, in my opinion, now is the time to preserve and protect our language for our kids and share it with our neighbours,” he said.