Take a linguistic risk

Posted on Tuesday, November 21, 2017

ESL and FSL students of all levels at uOttawa have the Linguistic Risk-Taking Initiative to help them apply what they learn in the classroom to everyday situations. 

By Linda Scales

A homegrown initiative at uOttawa is challenging English and French second-language students (ESL and FSL, respectively) to use their second language outside the classroom.

There’s a lot of discomfort about using a second language and we realized we needed to provide some motivation,” says Professor Nikolay Slavkov of the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute (OLBI) about its new Linguistic Risk-Taking Initiative conceived by a team of OLBI professors, staff and students.

Because uOttawa is a bilingual institution, it offers many opportunities for practising a second official language, but some people worry about not being understood or not understanding, and are shy about making mistakes and being judged.

“When you have the option, you always use the language you speak better,” says Slavkov, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies and Research in Bilingualism and Language Planning. “We need to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zone and away from their preferred language.”

Slavkov knows exactly what he’s talking about. When learning French, “I realized you could actually be quite advanced but still be hesitant to use the language in a real-life context,” says Slavkov, who now counts French as his fourth language after Bulgarian, Russian and English. “I was taking French courses that were quite complicated in terms of context, content, grammar and vocabulary, but found it difficult to order my croissant at the Social Sciences building.”

More than 60 linguistic tasks

In late October, the Linguistic Risk-Taking Initiative was launched as an optional language exercise for about 400 ESL and FSL students of all levels. Participants could choose from more than 60 linguistic tasks (called risks) of varying difficulty outlined in a passport-style booklet. These linguistic risks included sending an email to a uOttawa professor, making a phone call, or ordering food at the cafeteria – all in the participants’ second language, of course.

After completing a minimum of 20 linguistic risks by November 17, students submitted their completed passports to either the OLBI’s reception desk or their language teachers to enter a draw for gift cards, event tickets and other prizes. The initiative will be repeated in the winter 2018 term and then evaluated to see how it could be improved.

Currently, only students are eligible to participate in this initiative, but the OLBI hopes to expand it to University employees. The project has already caught the attention of the federal government, which invited Slavkov and Associate Dean Jérémie Séror (who is OLBI's director) to participate in a discussion about language learning during its ninth annual Linguistic Duality Day, in September. This, in turn, encouraged some federal departments to ask the OLBI for help in developing similar risk-taking initiatives.

“It’s a little grassroots idea with a lot of potential,” says Slavkov. “This initiative is about students incorporating their second official language into their everyday life, with the ultimate goal of increasing bilingualism.”

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