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Quebec Parents Drive Bid for Bilingualism

A solution for French-Canadian children not schooled in English: summer camp.

On his US trip in May to coax American businesses to locate in Quebec, one of Premier Lucien Bouchard's selling points was the province's bilingual work force, able to switch from French to English with ease.

But many parents in Quebec worry that their children aren't learning enough English to be part of this future work force.

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"My mother wants me to be bilingual by the end of my secondary school," says Vincent Gagnon. That leaves him three years. With no time to waste, Vincent is spending part of the summer at one of 30 English-language summer camps in Quebec.

Quebec's language law, passed almost 21 years ago, forbids French-speaking children from attending English-language schools. Children of immigrants also must attend French schools. Only Canadian children who have a parent who attended an English school in Canada may go to an English-language school.

French schools may start teaching English in Grade 4, and then for only one hour a week. While this has made the French language more secure in Quebec, it has produced many monolingual children whose parents worry they won't be able to compete in the North American job market.

At the Quebec Lodge Camp, just north of the border with Vermont, Vincent is one of the more fluent English speakers in his group. Many of the children can't put together a simple sentence in English.

On the playground it is easy to see - or rather hear - the problem. The 19 ESL (English as a Second Language) students are playing soccer. Two teachers tell them that if they speak French during the game, it will mean a penalty shot for the other side. The students soon solve the problem - they play in silence.

But this is only Day 2 at camp. The campers have two English lessons a day, and the rest of the time they mix with the English speakers. That's where they pick up most of their English, says Marilyn Magwood, a camp teacher.

"We try to put one French student in every tent, and we encourage them to speak English all the time. The trouble is the English kids speak French, so they sometimes switch to French because it's easier."

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Ms. Magwood notes that before French-language laws were passed in Quebec in 1974 and 1977, it was the English-speaking population that didn't speak French. Statistics Canada, a federal government agency, reported in 1996 that 82.5 percent of English-speakers in Quebec can carry on a conversation in both English and French. That contrasts with 49 percent for the same age group in 1971. Only 42 percent of the French-speaking majority aged 15 to 24 can speak both languages.

The Quebec government recognizes the problem. At the recommendation of the government-appointed Council of the French Language, in 1999 children in Quebec schools will start learning English in Grade 3, one year earlier.

"We recognize that English is an important language, especially with the trend to globalization of the economy," says Nadia Assimopoulos, president of the Council. A Greek immigrant who is more at home in French than in English, Ms. Assimopoulos is a walking advertisement for the Quebec government's policy of integrating immigrants into the French community.

"Thirty years ago, all the immigrants spoke English only. Bill 101 [the 1977 language law] changed all that," says Assimopoulos. Her agency has also recommended that students start learning a third language in high school.

For now, parents are relying on summer camps - or, for the wealthy, private schools - to help their children learn English.

"It's the parents who are driving this," says Quentin Robinson, camp director. "They are really motivated to make sure their children learn English."

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