Passive bilingualism: “A step in the right direction”

“The Secret Public Servant” biweekly column debuted last week, much to the horror (and guilty, juicy pleasure for some) of current and former public servants, media and pundits. 

Many with their own hot takes on the anonymous public servant’s opinion of, “How bilingualism promotes the mediocre.”

Some were outraged, others found themselves in agreement, while another segment was just generally confused at what this was actually meant to accomplish.

Regardless of the article’s intentions or whether one was left feeling gross or sustained after reading, it’s safe to say it sparked yet another dialogue about the current state of bilingualism and the system of language levels and profiles in the public service.

However, these questions were already asked, addressed and covered in a more meaningful and thoughtful way in a report not five years young titled, “The next level: Normalizing a culture of inclusive linguistic duality in the Federal Public Service workplace.”

The Clerk at the time, Michael Wernick, asked Public Service Commission President, Patrick Borbey and then Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Matthew Mendelsohn to, “conduct a review of the state of bilingualism in the federal Public Service and provide recommendations to ensure that we are evolving to meet the needs of public servants, and Canadians, in both official languages,” as it had been 15 years since the previous review of official languages in the public service.

The report was open and honest in its tone and findings with statements like, 

“Some current practices need to be questioned because, in the opinion of a large number of public servants consulted, they no longer meet the needs of a modern and dynamic public service.”

But unlike the anonymous public servant column, this report was grounded in facts, statistics and consultations.

Points raised such as:

Language training (which is not available to all equally):

“Language training is a limited resource. In addition, there is no government-wide policy which sets out who receives access to language training, the amount or the format. There is currently very limited data related to the costs and effectiveness of language training or investment in tools to support bilingualism in the workplace. Data that would be interesting includes: average cost of language training; average duration of language training; and average cost for leave related to language training (e.g., lost productivity, replacement cost).”

There is currently an entire side industry of language training schools dedicated to just training federal public servants so they can get their language levels but no actual data exists to demonstrate if this is effective and working.

Perspective of Francophone public servants:

“English is the dominant language for most daily activities and Francophone employees do not consistently feel that they can work in the language of their choice: most written materials are prepared in English and most meetings are conducted in English, particularly for the core items of discussion; and there are symbolic attempts to introduce French to meetings, typically at the beginning or end of a discussion but it is generally not sustained throughout the meeting. We also heard that in order to be understood on important issues, Francophone employees feel they must work in English. This is eroding our capacity to write good briefing materials in French, and creates an environment where it is difficult for staff to maintain their bilingual competencies due to a lack of ongoing and sustained experience using both official languages.

Disproportionate pass rates in language tests between English and French:

“The pass rate for all three SLE skills (written expression, reading comprehension and oral expression) is higher for English tests than French tests for both proficiency levels (level B and level C).The pass rates are lowest for level C French tests of written and oral expression, where only 35 to 45% of employees pass the test.”

Language profiles:

“The language profile of a position may not always align with the needs of the position. This has created an impression amongst many employees that the language requirements are sometimes established to meet superficial targets to comply with the policy framework.”

Bilingualism requirements as an impediment to career advancement:

“For some public servants, mostly employees who did not learn French prior to entering the labour market, they expressed concern that this makes it difficult to acquire the language skills needed to advance in their careers, and could limit access to bilingual positions to individuals who entered the Public Service bilingual.

There are also employees who face barriers to learning another language. This has created a tension between the objectives of the Official Languages Act and the duty to accommodate for disabilities.”

The report did make a series of recommendations across five categories:

  • Leadership: Strengthen accountability and recognize leaders who promote and contribute to a bilingual environment.
  • Policy: Establish the governance structures and requirements to support a bilingual work environment.
  • Culture: Cultivate a positive attitude towards linguistic duality, encourage the use of preferred language of work, and shift the emphasis towards openly using a second language rather than perfecting it. For example, federal institutions are encouraged to promote “receptive bilingualism” by hiring people who demonstrate a basic ability to follow conversations and read documents in their second official language, or by offering and encouraging employees to participate in basic language training to achieve this level of comprehension.
  • Training: Develop a culture of learning by providing new training opportunities and supporting employees who embrace and commit to this challenge.
  • Tools: Invest in tools and emerging technologies that will make the Public Service bilingual by design.
President of the Public Service Commission, Patrick Borbey, on “passive bilingualism,” one of the ideas covered in the report, “The Next Step”

You can read about these recommendations more in-depth in the link below.

While the report provided ideas, recommendations and highlighted what the public service thinks it’s doing right, where it fell short was really putting in place a system where these recommendations could be followed-up on and measured. 

It left the implementation of its recommendations to program leads being responsible for, “regular monitoring of key indicators, and periodic reporting to the senior leadership of the Public Service to ensure that improved outcomes are being delivered, lessons are being learned, and changes are being made to programs and policies based on evidence of what is working to improve linguistic duality in the Public Service.”

Did this happen?

The report was published towards the end of 2017, nearly five years ago.

How much has changed?

It’s clear the subject is still on the minds of so many, as we saw with last week’s “The Secret Public Servant” article.

Perhaps it’s time to take another look at this report, it’s been nearly five years, and present the public service with an updated report card on what progress has been made, where gaps still exist and how real change will be achieved.

Other links:

The next level: Normalizing a culture of inclusive linguistic duality in the Federal Public Service workplace

How bilingualism promotes the mediocre