The CEGEPS Series Part 1: Lost in Translation & the English Language Privilege
by Sarena Johnson
This past June I attended my first CACUSS conference and met student affairs professionals from all over Canada, including some from Quebec. I was introduced to the CEGEP system of higher education. A member of my team later mentioned that he thought their system was “better” than ours in Ontario since it better prepared students for post-secondary success. So this week I turned my attention to CEGEPS, in search of a basic understanding of what they are, how their system is unique in Quebec, and how they may be of benefit to post secondary students.
CEGEPS are post-secondary institutions in Quebec that provide vocational and pre-university diplomas. I was able to find a great deal of resources about CEGEPS online. The problem? Most of it was in French and I’m not a French speaker. One site looked particularly promising – it appeared to be one of, if not “the” official CEGEP website: la Fédération des CEGEPS.
Again, it was all in French. With one saving grace, a little button on the bottom right of the screen labelled ‘English’. I pressed the button with short lived delight as some text was translated, but the titles and column headers remained in French. I tried clicking on some French headers followed by the English button. But no matter what page I clicked, the English button simply took me back to that same basic page. There were all kinds of tempting tabs that I just couldn’t read without some other sort of translating program that I didn’t know about yet.
Alas, I was left unable to navigate the site without embarking on a lengthy process of learning to use Google Translate for every. single. thing. Yet I still wasn’t able to copy and paste column headers or titles. In seeming protest, they would not allow themselves to be copied. I had to use two screens and type stuff in myself. Look, then type. Look, then type. Then translate. Then look again. I started to wonder just how badly I needed to know what those tabs said?
Upon a second visit to the site, I discovered that when you Google search, you can get the option to “translate this page” and it automatically makes the information much more English. These all might seem like novice discoveries to some readers, and that’s kind of the point. How have I survived into my 30’s without ever having encountered this problem before? Aside from travel, it’s a stretch to imagine a world requiring translation. It’s not about how inept I am at doing this, it’s the fact that I’m not used to having to do this. I’ve never needed to use a translator to access information before. And it’s making me realize the fact that as a native English speaker, the world (and thus the internet) is basically set up to cater to my understanding and ease of use.
I had a conversation with Émilie Martel, Senior Lead, CEGEP Partnerships at Concordia University. She said that Concordia has 30% Francophone students, and has a lot of bilingual students but French might not be included in that so they need to become trilingual. This got me thinking about what the everyday lives of students would be like if they were trying to learn and function in one or more languages that weren’t their mother tongue. I’m wondering about the complexities of socializing when most people don’t speak your language or share the culture that’s associated with it.
It’s worth noting that my minor web research difficulties are an experience here in Canada, where French is an official language. If this challenge is a tiny microcosm of the language barrier for French speakers, I couldn’t begin to imagine what it must be like for folks who speak a language with fewer speakers and limited representation in pop culture.
Languages carry the seeds of a culture. Being Indigenous I do have a sense of the that direct connection. For example, in Anishnaabemowin, genders are animate and inanimate, and pronouns include complexities such as all of us, us but not you, all of ‘yous’ and so much more rich relational consideration that expresses Indigenous cultures’ unique ontologies and epistemologies. In our cases, languages were structurally attacked with residential schools and other policies of cultural genocide in an attempt to destroy those world views and teachings that encompassed Indigenous identity. What people believe to be possible and the way they think of and embody knowledge is both expressed in and decided by language. Languages are powerful and precious.
Emily Jones, a colleague who grew up in rural Quebec, experienced numerous benefits from attending CEGEP – a more supportive environment to learn skills like time management, and gain access to employment while acquiring minimal tuition debt. She stated that the Quebec education system, from primary education onwards, also makes it difficult to access education in English. CEGEPS are mostly French and the few English speaking ones are exclusive to student whose parents had gone to English school. This ensures that the French language remains strong. And given the attacks on my own languages, this strategy makes sense as a way to protect the language in an overbearingly English speaking society.
Yet I digress. I had initiated this project as a look at Quebec’s system of CEGEPS and how they differ from other provinces. I was intending on providing insights into their benefits to students and a glimpse at what student affairs looks like. After my conversations with Émilie and Emily I’m even more interested in CEGEPS, but this has also opened up a stream of curiosities: How Francophone students perceive English’s value in the job market? How CEGEPS and other post-secondary institutions provide supports for Francophone, Anglophone or newcomer students to learn other languages? I imagine the complexities of living, learning and socializing in a language that isn’t your own. Especially when just reading a website can be such a challenge. Most of all, I’m seeing the privileging of the English language in this colonial society. I’d like to continue exploring topics of language in this CEGEPS-inspired series.
I’m curious to know:
- Is English your first language? If so, have you learned any others and if so what was that process like? Is it something you’ve kept up?
- If it’s not your first language, what was the process of learning English like for you? Do you find yourself able to express yourself the same as your mother tongue? Are there different systems of thought that don’t translate to English?
- Do you work with students who experience language barriers? What programs/techniques/approaches seem to be most helpful? Do you provide specific supports around language? What supports exist within your institution? Are students finding helpful supports outside higher ed?
- I’m relatively new to this dialogue. Are there key concepts of terms that you’d suggest be included in this discourse?