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Our world is becoming increasingly multilingual. Many children are being raised as bilinguals. Bilingualism is a necessity, as a child’s parents may not be fluent in the majority language spoken in the community. Therefore, the child may learn one language at home and another at school. In many cases bilingualism is a choice, and parents may wish to expose their child to another language, even if they do not speak a second language themselves. French immersion programs across Canada are a path to become a bilingual individual. It is an approach to second language learning with a unique learning environment where French is used as the language of instruction for several or all subjects.
Based on statistics, in the recent years there is an extremely high demand of French immersion programs across Canada. Schools are scrambling to cope. The program is very popular between parents with and without French background, however there is a lack in supplying French teachers. Being bilingual is a great advantage for students in their personal and professional engagement and development. It opens doors for their future well-being. It gives them a lifelong ability to communicate with French-speaking people. It increases their appreciation of other languages and cultures as well as their own and most importantly it increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset.
Despite it’s popularity critics question the quality of the program and its benefits. Many believe that immersion is not an effective form of bilingual education. It lacks relevance, according to some. According to some, parents take advantage of it. It’s a way to get their children into ‘better’ schools by cloaking it under multiculturalism or bilingualism, avoiding the stigma of elitism. It weakens the rest of the school system by concentrating students with supportive families in a single location and using extra resources. As a newcomer, a bilingual, I would like to explore the different aspects of the implementation and “success” of French immersion programs in Canada. My research will evolve around few questions, if the program serves in its stated purpose or its time to say Au revoir to this trend.
Despite the issues of attrition, exclusion and special education availability, there are multiple long-term benefits of French immersion such as cognitive skills, language acquisition and higher employment rates and economic benefits. Researching on the topic I came across different opinions present between the parties concerned by the trending debate. Gathering data and resources I was able to narrow down to few most common stances and points.
Covering different aspects, I will focus on the long terms outcomes of the French Immersion program launched back in 1970s’.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s vision of a bilingual Canada changed the face of Canadian education. Across Canada, French immersion programs started springing up. Whereas the idea of Trudeau was to create bilingual generations, the objective of the parents was for their children to become more eligible for future jobs, promote the French culture to their children, and create a greater ease in living in Quebec society. The study was deemed a success, with parents from other provinces demanding the program be implemented in their provincial curriculum. Federal government added much needed funds to the French Immersion system. Many people say that the only reason that Immersion came to be is because of the initiative of then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. However, as with most new programs, criticism erupted. Studies were taken to prove that Immersion lacked balance. Most studies say that the experimental children had very little structure to the quality of French that they produced. The concept of teaching an Immersion program was originally designed in Montreal in 1971. However, this Immersion program was designed specifically for French students, and was considered very elitist because of its cultural limitations (Rebuffot, Jacques 1993).
Subsequently, today there are similar opinions that either support or oppose the program. School boards, parents, politicians and even teachers argue the benefits and the overall values of the immersion stream as well questioning whether the program served its original purpose.
Yet, we have to admit that the immersion experience can be unique and life-changing. French immersion like any other program is not perfect however speaking a second- language, even if not fluently, in a bilingual country such as Canada is a great long-term advantage on several different levels. First and foremost, research shows that French Immersion programs and early exposure to a second language produce more diverse learners. Students in French Immersion programs tend to have a more diverse approach to learning and a greater appreciation of different cultures. In a multicultural country such as Canada we need to embrace all the aspects that contribute to cultivating culturally and socially diverse generations of students. This is one of the main reasons why it is important to invest in French immersion and its resources.
Nevertheless, many question the credibility of the program due to the shortage of competent French teachers. Teachers have many different teaching styles. A great teacher will foster curiosity, interest and make learning come alive, no matter what stream they are teaching in. What is important is how we support teachers in the midst of high expectations and the reality where they lack strategies and even resources.
It seems problematic that at a time when many school districts are reporting shortages of FI teachers, enrolment in FI is rising. Furthermore, according to multiple studies the general demand for teachers in Canada is expected to increase significantly in the coming years.
Yes, many will agree that this is one of the major issues with the immersion program, along with the issue of proper language acquisition however, having an action plan to address this issue will have a long-term benefit.
Data shows that there are different methods and strategies to respond to most of the issues associated with the program. For example, breaking barriers that prevent exchanges between teachers. It is still easier for a teacher in Quebec to have an exchange with a teacher in France than with a teacher in Ontario, and that is a major issue. The government can invest in opening universities across Canada with French as the official language, especially in Ontario. Offer alternative certification, a practice of giving emergency credentials to those with bachelors’ degrees but without teaching degrees. These simple methods could offer a valuable solution to the issue with French teachers. At the same time this opens another field for further research and that is evaluating and determining methods for selecting prospective teachers. Educators have an ethical responsibility to ensure the French competence of teachers as well as the adequacy of their knowledge of FI teaching methodology. They should therefore adopt rigorous language testing methods with high rates of validity and reliability. They should also provide in-service to teachers who may need it and take steps to provide better service to French Immersion students. Without expecting perfection, it is imperative that high standards be maintained to protect the quality of education in FI schools and the success of the program (Veilleux, I., & Bournot-Trites, M. 2005).
For a long time, there was a common belief that speaking to and teaching kids in two languages can be confusing and it negatively affected their linguistic development. After numerous studies were conducted these claims have long since been refuted. Bilingualism provides significant benefits for children’s cognitive and social abilities, it stimulates creativity and has important advantages for the elderly as well. Studies show that speaking more than one language can slow the brain aging process.
Many studies support the idea that bilingual (and multilingual) students often demonstrate increased skills at problem solving, enhanced attention span and a heightened ability to task switch. These types of skills have a greater impact on student achievement than any other area of brain development. It seems, if you can give your child a leg up in the arena of executive function, you are setting them up for success. (Is French Immersion a Good Fit for Your Child? January 11, 2018)
More precisely, bilinguals showed an overall superior school performance, better test scores on assessments of their first language skills, and superior performances on non-verbal intelligence tests that required rearranging of visual forms. Dolean, D. D. (2015)
One of the other advantages of bilingualism is that speaking a second language can also facilitate learning a further foreign language. Children exposed to more than one language from their early age, acquire language more quickly and more effectively than their monolingual peers. Studies have shown that learning a second language does not interfere with the individual’s performance in the other language (Genesee, F., & Gándara, P. 1999). In fact, bilinguals have better predispositions in learning additional languages than monolinguals. The benefit of French immersion and bilingualism in general, should not be observed as an independent and stable structure, but should rather be examined in the context of process and practices. When talking about “how bilingual” French immersions students are we should always have on mind what is their native languages, how many other languages they speak before enrolling into the program, what is their social background and what is the demographic of the groups they interact with. There has to be a distinction between bilingual and native speaker, we cannot have the same language proficiency expectations for the two group of speakers. Being bilingual doesn’t necessarily mean being francophone, where one will subsequently identify with the francophone culture. It is also our perception of what it means to be able to speak French that affects how we perceive bilingualism in Canada today. Accordingly, being bilingual implies an ability to communicate with native speakers at their level of competence, to speak and sound like them (Lamarre, P., & Rossell Paredes, J. (2003). In this sense, perhaps there should be a study of what “fluent” really means. We are not doing justice to French immersion students if we keep the tendency to measure their proficiency and success against native French speakers. Many students want to learn French, but they can feel daunted by expectations that they should speak like native speakers or at least acquire a native-like competency.
Despite the advantages, many argue the benefit of learning a second language through French immersion saying that there is a low retention of the language and high drop-out rate in higher grades. In some cases, this is due to students choosing other specialized programs that are not available in immersion, and partly due to other factors, that need further investigation. In order to diminish the dropout rate of students there have to be specific measures such as: additional support for teachers, improving communication with parents and establishing comparative evaluations of students’ language skills.
Some of the disappointments with immersion comes from unrealistic expectations. It is crucial to understand that immersion isn’t intended to produce graduates who speak French with the fluency of native speakers. What immersion does provide are generations of students with a knowledge of more than one language that can be implemented in their advantage in private and professional life.
Language proficiency is closely related to both an intellectual and a physical activity, if the language is not being used frequently, it diminishes dramatically. This goes back to the opinion that language proficiency and growth are interconnected with the background and social engagement of the individual.
In the context of low retention of the language it’s also the issue of first language attrition. Originally attributed to a less frequent usage of the first language, the cause of first language attrition was explained more recently as being an adaptive strategy for the brain to facilitate learning of the second language. However, this phenomenon was observed mostly among immigrants and national minorities immersed in a social environment where the second language was predominant. In order to get results that represent the rest of the population in French immersion schools it is necessary to research between non-immigrants as well.
Bilingual children also tend to have a smaller vocabulary in both languages compared to their monolingual peers; yet, different studies show they have the same or even better understanding of linguistic structure than monolinguals (Bialystok 2012).
The conclusion, therefore, is that the experience of schooling in French in conjunction with an English home language environment produces patterns of linguistic development typically found for fully bilingual children. Thus, these children are becoming bilingual and bringing with them the positive outcomes of bilingualism. With continued exposure to and instruction in the formal structure of French, their linguistic skills will surely improve as well. Hermanto, N., Moreno, S., & Bialystok, E. (2012).
Finally, for many the biggest issue of French immersion programs is the issue of equity. French Immersion is a form of ‘stealth choice’, a way for parents to get their children into what they think is a ‘better’ school than their local school without appearing elitist, abandoning the public system or spending extra money (CAMPBELL, A. (2013, February 10).
Based on the academic literature, as well as the public and scholarly discourses I have consulted a major audience supports the allegation that it is an elitist program that excludes certain groups of students. For example, students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners, students with disabilities and behavioral problems, as well as male students are less represented in the program and aren’t reflective of the school population.
It is often labeled as an elitist program that filters out the children with behavioural problems and special needs. Critics argue that there is lack of support for gifted learners and those with learning disabilities. In many cases there are school boards with just a few or no special education teachers from the French stream. The fact is that when a child in immersion has any kind of learning or behavioural problem, the first response of some schools is to pressure the parents to take their child out of immersion, regardless of whether or not the learning problem has anything to do with the language of instruction. Yet there are studies that show that children with learning problems do just as well in immersion as they do in the English stream.
Similarly, many schools and school boards actively discourage immigrant parents from enrolling their children in immersion, even though studies show that immigrant students – who often speak a third language at home – adapt smoothly to immersion. Some immersion programs, however, boast a high percentage of children of immigrants, as their parents recognize the value of being able to speak the country’s two official languages.
Consequently, the question that arises from this point doesn’t oppose the French immersion program, rather than that it challenges our perception and expectations from the program.
Have we become judges and decided on a verdict rather than to try and identify the faults and work on their improvement. The fact is that every year there is a higher rate of enrollment in French immersion schools. As indicated by Statistics Canada, enrolments in French immersion programs totalled 409,893 in 2014/2015, up 4.5% compared with 2013/2014 when 392,430 students were enrolled. Increases in these program enrolments were seen in virtually every province and territory. Close to 2 million students (1,957,713) were enrolled in regular (core) second language programs in Canada’s public elementary and secondary schools in 2014/2015, down slightly (-0.7%) from 2013/2014 (Elementary–Secondary Education Survey for Canada, the provinces and territories, 2014/2015 Government Canada).
Therefor instead of criticizing the program that was designed for the long-term asset of new generations we should focus on it’s improvement, educate teachers, provide more support and resources for French immersion schools and teachers, rethink our expectations and goals before enrolling our children, and last give the child a choice whether they want to be part of it or not to avoid later regrets and deceptions. Once we identify the barriers that prevent students with learning disabilities from getting the proper instruction, then we can address those issues with the goal of moving forward to greater inclusion of students with learning disabilities.
In fact, we believe that the survival of FI depends on its ability to show how it can be inclusive of a wide range of learner needs; a language program cannot continue to thrive if it does not challenge itself to do better (Mady, C., & Arnett, K. 2009).
It is the challenge that needs to be further investigated and addressed in order to assure proper growth and success of the French immersion program. Indeed, there are problems with French Immersion, but reality shows that the benefits outweigh them.
Looking at the socio-economic circumstances we can easily say that being bilingual today means having an economic advantage. Research shows that many choose French because it is one of the official languages of Canada and because having command of both languages will allow them to compete in the bilingual market. It is a well-known fact that those who speak two or more languages have better employment opportunities and consequently more economic benefits. According to Statistics Canada and the 2006 census the employment rates for bilingual Canadians who are proficient in both French and English is higher than the employment rates of Canadians who speak only one of the official languages. This is significant, and is a major reason why parents choose to enroll their children in French Immersion programs.
Another noteworthy statistic from the 2006 census is that Canadians who achieve bilingual status have a higher average income than those who only speak English or French. This is true not only in Quebec but in a total of 6 of the provinces.
There are increased employment, travel and social opportunities for those who speak more than one language. When I entered teaching, competition for jobs was fierce and it was very difficult to secure a place with the school board – unless the applying teacher spoke French. French teachers are always in demand and those who were bilingual had a much easier time securing teaching jobs. There are many careers that demand multilingual skills. Plus, the Canadian Census information suggests that Canadians who are bilingual have a higher average income than us single-language speakers (Chawla, E. (2015).
French immersion education is beneficial from several different aspects. It is about gaining cultural, linguistic, and social wealth and dominance in Canadian society and elsewhere and about becoming competitive in the bilingual job market. Facing the reality, it is undeniable that when students graduate from college or University there is no guarantee for employment opportunities and the competition is tough. Thinking about the future it is necessary to prepare children and arm them with all the available tools to help them success and differentiate from the rest of the competition on the market. Students with learning disabilities should also be given the chance to enrich their capacities and express themselves through the French immersion programs, while stumbled in one aspect, learning French can be their ticket to grow and succeed further in life, personally and professionally.
The fear of not doing the right thing paralyze most parents who know the pressure being put on them by the knowledge that there are advantages to being bilingual – the job opportunities are legion & the financial rewards are undeniable. A recent report from the Fraser Institute said that the difference between the pay level of the public sector & the private sector is 10.6%. (McConnell, K. 2016).
Language can be seen as a set of resources that are available to speakers, and, therefore, bilingual education such as French immersion in a country like Canada can provide significant advantages for anglophones as well. Through immersion schools, anglophones can increase their linguistic and cultural capital and, consequently, improve their social and economic mobility and political power. Not only do they retain the power they already have as anglophones, but they obtain more by becoming bilingual. Bilingual education is a right not a privilege. In order to succeed, Canadians need to have greater access to language learning opportunities and a better understanding of official language minority communities, including their culture and their institutions. This does not mean, and has never meant, that all Canadians should be bilingual or that they should feel less of a Canadian if they speak only English or only French. But it does mean that they should welcome the presence of the other official language and see it as a key symbol of their country’s identity. In other words, English and French are not foreign languages in Canada, they are Canadian languages. Canadians need to have a sense of ownership of both languages, whether they speak them or not. To do that, they need to know that they have access to the other language and the other cultures that are expressed in that language.
To conclude, despite the setbacks of the program, French Immersion opens doors — not for the “elite” — but for students from every walk of life, especially new Canadians, whose parents want their kids to fully engage in every aspect of Canadian life.
Meet Wadeed. His family immigrated to Canada when he was a toddler. His parents didn’t know a word of French and Wadeed was learning English. They chose a bilingual country and then French immersion for their children. They were lucky enough to get into the program ahead of the restrictions on student numbers and the reduction in hours put in place by Peel Region. He is doing bio-chem at university and with French in his tool kit, he is up for 100 per cent of possible opportunities across Canada and many more around the world (Cruden, M. 2017).
Let’s embrace the annual growth rate of French immersion of 5.7 per cent as a major success story in public education. Let’s get to work making sure every student in Ontario can access French immersion and acquire the language skills to fully participate in the public and cultural life of our country. Second-official-language education is essential at the elementary, high school, college and university levels. It also needs to happen outside of the classroom in order to spark the interest of students, inspire them to become bilingual and help them maintain their skills. The fact that Canada has a large pool of people who can speak both official languages also contributes to its economic development and to its vitality.
(Campbell A. 2013) “These developments should concern us all. Public education is an investment in our collective future. Supporting a French Immersion program that limits the educational potential of students is short sighted. Our education system must be organized to allow for the maximal growth of all students.”
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