By Jim Johnson
Housed in charming little Elmlea school, set on a tree-lined street in northwest Toronto, Cindy Auwaerter’s Grade 4 classroom features typical clusters of desks, colourful bulletin boards, and a checkerboard-pattern carpet in the centre of the room. But in this serene setting, a remarkable intersection of cultures and languages can be found — the 25 students, in characteristic Toronto fashion, have been drawn from nearly a dozen cultures, from the Middle East to Africa to the Caribbean. They speak English with one another out on the grassy playground, but in this class it’s en franÃ§ais, s’il vous plait. From the decor — posters and handwritten sheets display math (L’arrondissement des nombres), science (Qu’est-ce qu’un habitat?) and language (Les adjectifs possessifs) — to the gentle yet concise words that flow from Madame Auwaerter and the social chatter in the room, the children are completely immersed in French.
And it’s clear that they, in turn, have embraced the language, in work and play. Ten-year-old Ammar uses his French skills as a sibling secret code. “Sometimes me and my brother will be talking and we don’t want Mom to listen, so we just start talking in French,” he says with a broad smile. Some are thinking ahead. “Let’s say you want a job but they only have one place. If there’s another person who only speaks English but you speak English and French, they’ll give you the job because you know more languages,” says Bryan, also 10. “My hope,” says Auwaerter, “is that French immersion will take them anywhere in the world that they want to go.”
A BILINGUAL BRAIN IS BETTER
French immersion (FI) made its debut in 1965 at a single pilot school in an English-speaking Montreal suburb. Enrollment boomed in the late ’70s and the ’80s, with programs opening in school boards from coast to coast as part of the federal government’s newly introduced policies on bilingualism and multiculturalism. Today, FI — a public education program designed for non-French speakers that teaches all or most subjects in French — can be found in every province and two of three territories (Nunavut is the exception). A made-in-Canada approach, this style of education has also been exported to a number of countries around the world. And while the boomtown days are gone, FI continues to show modest growth. At last count, in 2006, some 309,000 students (7.7 per cent of total eligible enrollment) were enrolled between JK and Grade 12, more than a third of them in Ontario. Certain places, including parts of British Columbia and areas of Toronto, are experiencing sharp rates of growth, and some school districts have even adopted lottery systems to allot available places (a better option than parents lining up overnight prior to registration day or registering their child while in utero, which had been happening in B.C.).
The enduring popularity of French immersion can be attributed to a number of proven benefits, some of which are well known. Parents often enroll their children in order to open doors of employment down the road, and at least one study, performed by the Association for Canadian Studies, has validated these hopes. It found that workers who speak both French and English earn almost 10 per cent more than those who speak English alone. There’s also the pleasure of being able to converse in both of Canada’s official languages, and the fact that French speakers have another handy tool when travelling abroad and can make a wider variety of cultural connections. Bilinguals also enjoy certain cognitive advantages, says Ellen Bialystok, distinguished research professor in the department of psychology at York University in Toronto. Bialystok has authored a number of studies in this area, and notes that the benefits of bilingualism include enhanced problem-solving skills, although, she adds, these cognitive abilities only kick in when someone enjoys fully balanced and fully functional bilingualism, and after “massive amounts” of practice.
WHEN TO ENROLL — AND WHAT TO EXPECT
Parents seeking to enroll their kids have three main options (although all three aren’t available in every district). Early immersion begins in kindergarten or Grade 1, middle immersion in Grade 4 or 5, and late immersion in Grade 6, 7, or even later.
Early immersion is by far the most popular, and some 80 per cent of all FI students begin at this point. The amount of French in the classroom upon entry in kindergarten or Grade 1 will vary from board to board, but in many or even most cases it will be total. “The advantage of early immersion relates to children’s brain development,” says Janette Pelletier, an associate professor of human development and applied psychology and a French immersion expert at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. “It is thought that the greater plasticity in a young brain is related to the ability to acquire second, third and fourth languages more easily, without a pronounced accent.” Nathalie Martel-Fairbairn, who oversees French immersion up to Grade 6 for the Halifax Regional School Board, adds that early on “we douse them with language — orally, visually, on the written page. They have to speak the words — eat them, practically, so that they make sense.”
And while experts say that kids don’t find entering an all-French classroom bewildering (having no other experience, they just assume that this is the norm at school), parents should be prepared for their little student to be tired out. “The first few months, they are exhausted, and parents might notice that their kids will be a bit grumpy when they come home,” says Lise Henry, an Edmonton Grade 1 FI teacher and mother with two kids in immersion. She adds that having strong foundations in place (such as a scheduled bedtime, healthy meals and snacks, and even a water bottle to stay hydrated) can help children handle this challenging time.
However, for many parents, the biggest concern isn’t the initial days in the program, but the long-term acquisition of English skills — and the well-circulated rumour that these skills suffer in French immersion. This is, in fact, a myth: studies have shown that the skills of students in the program either match or even exceed those in the regular English stream. But parents should be prepared for a lag in the early grades. Carolyn Meek-Vandervaart, an Orangeville, Ont. mother with two kids in the program — daughter, Jacqueline, is in Grade 2 and son, Charles, is in Grade 1 — is experiencing this first-hand. Although Jacqueline can handle French spelling and conversation easily, she notes that she “heard that children tend to be really poor spellers in English, and that’s the case with my daughter right now — she’s a terrible speller.” The lag usually disappears within a year, says Sharon Lapkin, a professor in the Second Language Education Program at OISE/UT. When literacy skills become entrenched, she explains, kids then use those skills across languages, plus the introduction of classes in English language arts in Grades 3 or 4 also helps. Parents also often fear that their child’s performance in other subjects, especially math and science, will suffer, but the research — including many large-scale studies in the ’70s and ’80s, and an influential update published by Lapkin and her colleagues in a 2001 edition of the Canadian Modern Language Review — indicates that it will not.
Those who enter FI in a middle or late immersion program face a daunting challenge, having spent many years — including those when basic reading and other skills are learned — in the regular English stream. But kids who join at this point often play an active role in the decision, and tend to be very motivated. They will typically be plunged into near-total immersion right away. Jan Claes, who taught in a Grade 7 late immersion classroom for 18 years, and now oversees FI for Grades 7 to 9 at the Halifax Regional School Board, notes that “in September and October, the teachers were more exhausted than the kids because we had to do an awful lot of miming and drawing. We would go through the whole explanation and say, “Vous comprenez?’ and there would be all these eyes blinking at you.” But, she adds, they catch on surprisingly fast. “By January, they always found their rhythm — there was this giant click, and by the end of the year they were quite capable of teasing me in French.”
As kids move up through the grades, the amount of time they spend in an all-French classroom drops, and by the time they reach high school, students will typically be taught two courses in French, aside from French language class, per year (math, certain sciences and other courses are typically taught in English). FI programs tend to have a high rate of attrition, with the greatest number of students choosing other paths as they enter high school. However, once in secondary school, motivated by the prospect of earning a French immersion certificate and the resulting opportunities, students usually remain until graduation. The level of fluency at graduation will vary from student to student, sometimes according to how much time they spent in the program, but most will be functionally bilingual. “They won’t become Francophones, but they will be able to work or study further in French, which is really an asset,” says Halifax’s Martel-Fairbairn.
AN EDUCATION ELITISM?
Since its inception, French immersion has been plagued by the charge that it’s elitist. “Some people call it the poor man’s private school,” observes Vancouver mom Janice Duivestein, whose eldest son, Jared, graduated from FI two years ago and whose younger son, Rylan, just graduated at the end of the 2007 school year. French immersion advocates, including Duivestein, firmly deny that this is the case, pointing out that the program is publicly funded and, where available, open to every child.
However, Statistics Canada, in a 2004 report entitled “French immersion 30 years later,” has documented that kids in the program tend to come from higher socio-economic backgrounds and are more likely to have parents with a post-secondary education. Moreover, the same report notes that “there may also be a tendency for less-skilled students to transfer out of immersion programs if there is a concern about their ability to learn in the second language.” Added to this is the fact that the availability of support for students in FI with learning disabilities varies from board to board, and is often inadequate. Not surprising is a 2007 finding by the Canadian Council on Learning that attrition rates are particularly high among these students.
Connie Bell and her 10-year-old daughter Rachel became part of the attrition statistics when Rachel was in Grade 2. Observing that Rachel had a great command of the English language — speaking by eight months — and after seeing the positive experience of her cousin’s kids, the Whitby, Ont., mother enrolled Rachel in early immersion. By Grade 1, she was struggling mightily with her French writing skills, and as she entered Grade 2, Rachel fell further and further behind. She met with the special education resource teacher, who didn’t speak French. “Rachel would sit and silent-read during their meetings. And I thought, “Well, that’s not helping.” Rachel, she adds, was scolded for asking for help, had papers marked with bright red X’s, and in at least one case was publicly embarrassed by her grade two teacher in front of the class. After meetings with the principal and classroom teacher were unhelpful, Bell figured enough was enough and pulled her out. “Rachel wasn’t eating her lunch, went to school with a stomach ache every day, and had diarrhea,” she remembers. Bell, who works as an educational assistant, feels that early immersion teachers serve as gatekeepers for the program. She believes that kids with behavioural issues were weeded out after Grade 1 (she observed that none returned for Grade 2), and that kids with academic needs were counselled out by the end of Grade 2. “By Grade 3 you have your elite, then they mould them for three, four, five and six.” Rachel, who was never actually identified with a learning disability (because the test was administered in English), is now happy in her Grade 4, regular stream class — and getting top marks in French.
Some would argue that Bell’s experience is a (particularly bad) exception rather than an example of a systemic pattern, while even Bell, who calls French immersion an “excellent program” for the right student, is reluctant to speculate on whether her experience is being replicated in other schools or boards. And FI advocates such as Betty Gormley, executive director of the Ontario branch of the national organization Canadian Parents for French, are firm in their resolve that such special education resources should be available to FI students. “We absolutely believe that children in the French immersion program should have access to any kind of support that is offered for any kind of special need.”
Back at Elmlea, which has a French-speaking special education resource teacher, there is little evidence of elitism. “Take a look around,” says Madame Auwaerter, nodding to her students on the playground. “Our children come from a diversity of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. When they come to us with strengths, we use their strengths, and when they come to us with needs, we support their needs.”
Contributing editor Tim Johnson retained little more from his core French education than the theme song to TéléfranÃ§ais, but gained a working knowledge of the language when he spent several months living, playing baseball and teaching English in northern France.
Keep reading for tips and pointers if you are considering French immersion for your child