When New Bruns-wicker Gail Storr, a unilingual anglophone, underwent back surgery in Montreal last summer, her nine-year-old son Peter helped her communicate with her French-speaking roommate. In nightly telephone calls, Peter, now a Grade 4 French-immersion student at Fredericton’s Priestman Street school, acted as an interpreter for his mother and her roommate at the Montreal Neurological Institute. ‘T was really proud of him,” said Storr last week. “But I wasn’t surprised. Sometimes he seems more comfortable in French than in English.”
But Peter Storr may be exceptional. Many English-speaking Canadians who try to learn the country’s other official language remain shy about actually using it. Still, 23 years after the first experimental French-immersion classroom opened in the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire, English Canada’s appetite for le français shows no sign of slackening. Indeed, this year’s estimated enrolment of 224,120 students in public elementary and high-school French-immersion classes across the country is a record, up from 202,736 last year. Although programs vary, most of those students study exclusively in French for two to four years, then take about 50 per cent of their academic courses in French for the rest of their years in immersion. Educators, meanwhile, say that while problems remain, the past decade has brought dramatic improvements in both immersion teaching and conventional French instruction—which together now reach roughly half of the country’s 4.7 million elementary and high-school students. In much of Canada, adults are also studying French in record numbers— many because they have been spurred on by their children.
Debate: But the burgeoning popularity of French immersion across Canada gives a clear indication of the general interest in bilingualism. Between 1977 and 1987, while enrolments in regular French programs inched upward, the number of students in immersion classes increased sixfold. By last fall nearly five per cent of Canadian elementary and high-school students were in either what is known in the school system as “early” immersion, which begins in kindergarten, or “late” immersion,
usually started at the Grade 6 or 7 level. Still, more than two decades after its inception, immersion and the techniques used to put it into effect continue to arouse debate.
Errors: One study, which University of Ottawa researchers conducted in 1986, cast doubt on the amount of
French used by immersion students after graduation. The researchers reported that many of the 80 graduates they examined said that they lacked the confidence to use French in conversation. Ottawa’s Carleton University journalism student Michael Aiken, 21, told an
interviewer: “I came out expecting to be perfectly bilingual. In fact, it wasn’t so.” Some academic critics have been even more damning, stating that most immersion graduates cannot use French correctly. Declared Gilles Bibeau, a linguistics professor at the University of Montreal: “They hesitate,
speak in incomplete sentences, have a strong foreign accent and make numerous errors in grammar and vocabulary.”
But immersion advocates are unshaken by those accusations. “Critics say that grammar is not 100 per cent,
the accent is not great. That’s probably quite true,” said Susan Purdy, national president of Canadian Parents for French, an 18,000-member Ottawabased organization that lobbies for improved second-language education. “But I am not overly concerned. If they’re going to use French in a working environment, the pressure of that environment will make them correct their mistakes.” Immersion’s supporters add that it has become more effective as experience with the technique has grown.
At Calgary’s Westgate school, where
400 of the 600 elementary pupils are in immersion, principal N. J. (Budge) Burrows noted that a persistent 15-per-cent dropout rate vanished after a program change in 1979 simplified instruction. And while many immersion graduates admit to shyness in French, another study in 1984, by the Ottawa school board, produced more positive results
than the University of Ottawa’s. After questioning graduates of the Ottawa system, investigators reported that almost nine out of 10 believed themselves able to converse in French “adequately” or “with confidence.”
Vancouver teenager Liisa House, 15, said that she feels some of that confidence. Liisa, a Grade 9 student at Vancouver’s Kitsilano high school, began French immersion in kindergarten. Now, she said, if she encounters a French-speaker who is having problems on the street, “I’ll go over and help them.”
Recent studies have also addressed concerns that French immersion would erode a child’s grasp of English, hinder understanding of other subjects and compound learning disabilities. In fact, a study conducted by the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education concluded that this did not happen. Noted Valerie Argue, a senior research officer at the institute: “Immersion works, without any more side effects than any other form of education.” Indeed, in several studies, immersion students outshone comparison groups.
Critical: Immersion also appears to have passed the critical test by winning the approval of a growing number of parents. In recent years mothers and fathers in such widespread communities as Charlottetown, Hamilton and Calgary have lined up overnight to secure places in immersion classes for their children. One reason for the enthusiasm is economic. Noted Regina’s Donald Ziffle, whose six-yearold son, Aaron, is in his second year of immersion: “Jobs are not that easy to find. You are opening doors if you are bilingual.” But Vancouver’s Jennifer House, who enrolled her three children, including Liisa, in immersion, said that she did so because of Canada’s bilingual identity. Said House: “It was an opportunity for them to speak the two main languages of Canada.”
But popularity has brought problems of its own. The demand for more and
more French—in immersion as well as traditional classroom instruction—has created a shortage of qualified teachers. In Ontario, the issue was debated this month at a conference of education officials organized by Canadian Parents for French. According to chairman Kathryn Manzer, the province’s 10 teacher-training institutions will turn out only 635 French teachers this year, at a time when four of Ontario’s six school divisions have already identified a need for at least 900 new French instructors. Teachers are also in short supply in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.
Strong: But enthusiasm for learning French, whether it is through immersion classes or more traditional language instruction, remains strong. Indeed, in some cities, adults face waiting lists for enrolment in French courses. “Six years ago we had 900 students,” reported Yves Thoraval, director of the nonprofit Alliance française French organization in Vancouver. “Now we have 1,500. Sometimes we have to refuse them.” In Regina, 115 people signed up last fall for night classes in French at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology.
At the same time, as English-speaking provinces have increased provision for French instruction, Quebec has left its French-speaking citizens who want to learn English largely on their own. In Quebec, provincial officials have discouraged the expansion of English instruction in public schools, none of which offer English immersion. Successive Quebec governments have expressed concern that exposing young Quebecers to English would threaten the province’s culture. But that policy has sparked criticism. André Langevin, director of curriculum at the Catholic School Commission of Montreal, for one, urged last year that English instruction be extended to Grade 1. Declared Langevin: “Anglophones are more and more bilingual. I don’t want young francophones penalized.” Still, many adults in Quebec are willing to pay to improve their own English. In the past year some 700 signed up for one program alone, spending up to six weeks immersed in English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. For them, as for young Peter Storr in Fredericton and a growing number of other Canadians, a grasp of both English and French is seen as an essential skill for citizens striving to get ahead —and to break the silence between Canada’s two historic solitudes.
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