A little French polish

November 11, 2005

Zach Dubinsky looks at the challenges and theopportunities presented by the bilingual university

Joseph Heath likes a challenge. The award-winning Canadian philosopher is a native English speaker, but in 2002 he decided to leave the University of Toronto for a post in the province of Quebec at the Universite de Montreal, where the official language is French.

He is not alone. Canada's universities are in the middle of a hiring spree.

And, in seeking to attract top researchers and replace retiring baby-boomer scholars, several of its dozen French-language institutions have been hiring academics from the nation's English-speaking provinces and the US.

Some of the recruits have little knowledge of French; others, such as Heath, are merely rusty. "It was a bit heartstopping going to teach at a French university," he recalls. "I had to take courses to brush up on grammar."

The realignment was not too much of a jolt, however. Heath had held a chair in political economy and ethics at Montreal for two years before moving to Toronto when his wife landed a job there. Moreover, he had help settling into his new position via his new institution's relatively easy-going language policy.

The university's stance, as stated in its job advertisements, is that a "good knowledge of the French language is expected within a reasonable period of time" of being hired, usually up to three years.

"If they want to compete for the best scholars, they have to be flexible with language, so they offer a lot of support to help new faculty learn French," Heath says.

Across town at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal (UQAM), all new staff are expected to be proficient in French from day one. However, that has not stopped the university from snaring anglophone talents such as cognitive scientist Steven Harnad, lured from Southampton University a few years ago, and New York-born historian Greg Robinson. Both spoke sufficient French before heading to UQAM.

For non French-speakers, UQAM tries to increase its appeal to students from overseas by offering a panoply of French-language classes tailored to a host of mother tongues.

The same strict linguistic policy is in place at the French-language Universite de Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada's only officially bilingual province.

"New professors have to be able to teach, write and read in French," says Zenon Chiasson, director of professorial affairs. But rather than being deterred by an unfamiliar language, some Anglophone staff and students are attracted to Moncton precisely because of it. Pandurang Ashrit, a physics professor who arrived in the 1980s from India not speaking a word of French but who has since mastered the language, says of his laboratory: "We've been hiring people from all around the world, and not all of them are francophone - they're mostly anglophone.

"But with Moncton being a very bilingual city and its people open to French and English, a lot of people like it."

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