By Tim Johnson
IS IT RIGHT FOR YOUR CHILD?
French immersion students are plunged into a sea of language that for most is completely unfamiliar, and the days after enrollment will come with many challenges. So it’s important to try to ensure that the program will be a good fit for your child. “Children who have strong language ability, are interested in words and know the alphabet names and sounds, are the children who tend to do better in reading and other language activities in early immersion,” advises OISE’s Janette Pelletier. Joanne Robertson, who is the district principal of student and program services for the North Vancouver School District, agrees. “I tell parents that if their child is a reluctant speaker the early program may not be the best place for them.”
And it pays to do your homework. Advocacy groups such as Canadian Parents for French (CPF) offer many resources online, and parents should take advantage of the FI information nights offered by most boards (usually held several months before classes begin in September). “Talk to the teacher and speak with other families with kids in French immersion,” says Heidi Clarkson, whose two daughters, Jaycee and Madeleine, are both enrolled in the program in New Westminster, B.C. “There are a lot of myths out there, so parents really need to make an informed decision.” If you’re thinking about entering your child in a late immersion program, involving him in the decision is key, as he will need strong motivation and personal will to face the steep learning curve. And feel free to take a test drive. “If you discuss it with them and they’re interested, the best experience would be for them to go and try it for a day or two,” says Jeffrey Dubney, whose son Ryan is doing well in his first year in a late immersion program in Victoria, B.C. “If it doesn’t work out,” he adds, “your child can simply move back into the regular program. There’s nothing lost.”
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Many parents fear that their own lack of French skills will be an impediment, or at least a frustration, but the reality is that most of the parents with kids in the program don’t speak a lot of French. Betty Gormley of the CPF notes that FI is an entry-level program designed for those with little or no French. “The main thing is to be supportive the way you would be with any child, regardless of the program,” she says. That means encouraging them in their studies, making sure they do their homework, and for younger children, reading to them in English. Family support was big for Vancouver Grade 12 FI student Madeline Sloan, especially early on in her late immersion program. “You really need your parents’ support,” she says. “You need them to be there to help you out and encourage you, because it’s hard.”
When your child hits a snag with her homework, seek out local support networks for help — a friend or classmate’s parent who speaks French, for example. Your child can also translate the work so you’re then able to help with the concept. Failing this, you can make use of French-English dictionaries or their 21st century cousin, the online translator. Some parents even take French courses, which are available through the CPF and other organizations.
You can also help by providing French resources for after-school or during the summer, and experts encourage parents to buy French music and DVDs, or to take the family on a summer vacation to Quebec or even France. Tune in French shows on television, including cartoons for the little ones. And a small piece of advice before the first day of early immersion can save a lot of confusion: let your child know that he won’t be the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on, says Edmonton FI teacher and parent Lise Henry. “They have to know that everyone is there learning.”
A POCKET GLOSSARY
There’s a lot of lingo to learn — here’s a petit guide
Core French: A program that is part of the regular English stream, where French is taught for a single period each day (or several periods each week). It’s often mandatory from Grade 4 until Grade 9. Sometimes known as Basic French.
Dual Track: Term used to describe a school where both French
immersion and English-stream programs are housed.
Early Immersion: The French immersion program with the earliest and most common entry point, beginning in kindergarten or Grade 1.
Extended French: A type of core French program that typically begins in Grade 4 or Grade 6 and provides exposure to the language in additional subjects (for example, social studies and phys-ed are often taught in French). Less than 50 per cent of the day is spent immersed in French.
FSL: An acronym for French as a Second Language, an umbrella term for various programs, from core French to French immersion, designed to teach the language to non-native speakers.
Intensive French: A one-shot language boost, typically lasting the length of one school year, where a significant portion of the day is spent learning French, while the regular curriculum, delivered in English, is compacted
Late Immersion: The French immersion program with the latest entry point, typically in Grade 6 or 7 or later.
Middle French Immersion: A French immersion program with an entry point in Grade 4 or 5.