Vancouver school system tries to tame a Babel of tongues

When the school day starts at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School here, more than half of the 1,500 students who pour through the doors would be just as happy studying in one of some 50 languages. Unfortunately, many are unable to speak the one language they need to survive in this part of Canada -- English.

After the liberal immigration policies of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, the Vancouver School Board finds itself trying to run an education system that is akin to managing a minor United Nations, with similar logistical problems.

Throughout the city's school system, roughly half of the 51,000 pupils are enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes.

``We're not like the Americans who blend everything together in a soup pot,'' says Robert King, principal of Sir Charles Tupper. ``We pride ourselves in trying to maintain national distinctions. We're like a stew in Canada: You can still see the carrot, you can still see the onion. We encourage that.''

But Mr. King says there is a vital need for the students to understand a common language. ``If you're a science teacher,'' he says, ``the prospect of asking kids to conduct chemical experiments is frightening when you consider they may not have understood the instructions.''

Jan Harvey, the head of the school's language training program, says some students can't even describe the problems they encounter in their daily lives, ``because they don't have the language skills. But when it does come out,'' she says, ``it is incredibly poignant.''

Ms. Harvey says there have been challenges in setting up and running the Vancouver program. For instance, she says, many students come to Canada carrying the same racial prejudices that are sometimes prevalent in their homelands. In the past there have been clashes between Sikh and Hindu students, distribution of hate literature, and open fights between factions of Oriental youths.

Harvey credits a number of multiracial programs with helping to defuse such tensions. Teachers can now identify and calm situations that were volatile because staff could not understand insults and threats being hurled in foreign tongues.

There is a leadership camp in summer for select students. A number of multicultural trouble-shooters are scattered throughout the schools and race relations consultants are on-call. In addition, a 25-minute videotape has been prepared, explaining how students can deal with racial prejudice. And there are after-hours programs to help parents adjust to their new country.

For parents who fear their children will be assimilated into a homogenious Canadian culture, heritage language courses are offered after school, in which students are taught to read, write, and encouraged to converse in their native tongue.

These programs grew out of a race-relations and multicultural policy, developed by the school board in 1982 after meetings with 35 community groups. It was one of the first of its kind in Canada, and has gained an international reputation.

A decade ago when the language training classes started there might have been seven or eight students learning to speak English at a typical inner-city high school, now there are hundreds. A recent survey found 85 different mother tongues represented among the students. Most disturbing to administrators, however, were the more than 1,200 students who could speak no English.

Although the $4 million program has been under tight budgetary constraints, the presence of increasing numbers of immigrant children is bound to keep the program going.

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