Translating Success

Thirty-five years after the introduction of French immersion, its boosters and detractors are still at loggerheads

John Schofield May 1 2000

Translating Success

Thirty-five years after the introduction of French immersion, its boosters and detractors are still at loggerheads

John Schofield May 1 2000
Peter Gill was never the teacher’s pet—in either official language. But as one of the first French-immersion students in Ottawa in the mid-1970s, Gill persisted and his fluency blossomed. Now, the 34-year-old Vancouver businessman credits that skill with opening doors he never would have anticipated. In 1993, Gill completed his international MBA at INSEAD, the prestigious French business school south of Paris, which requires proficiency in French and a third language. In 1994, he was hired as a financial adviser by Vancouver-based mining giant Placer Dome Inc., where his work took him to 20 countries. Says Gill, now working on the launch of a health-related Web site in Vancouver: “Choosing French immersion was the best thing my parents ever did.”

Thirty-five years after its bold launch in the Montreal suburb of St-Lambert, French immersion has spawned devoted fans—and ardent detractors. Next month, the New Brunswick government will issue a report addressing charges that French-immersion programs, which attract almost 25 per cent of students in that province, are siphoning off the best and brightest, creating a huge academic divide. Across Canada, enrollment in French immersion has risen 17 per cent since 1990 to include more than 317,000 students, but its popularity varies dramatically: while interest has slumped in such provinces as British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, numbers continue to grow in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In some cases, the decision to spurn immersion is political. In others, it’s a matter of competing options: the Edmonton public school board offers programs in 10 languages. Critics contend that French immersion is elitist and expensive, despite the fact that it is one of the few educational offerings that receives federal funding in elementary or high school. Says Michele MacPhail, principal of Ecole Beaufort, a French-immersion school in Halifax: “We’re always in fear of the chopping block.”

Ottawa remains one of the program’s biggest boosters. Last year, the federal government increased its budget for official-language education by $50 million annually, to $219 million a year. Three months ago, it reached a deal requiring the provinces to develop a formal action plan for official-language education. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps raised the stakes even higher, telling the Commons Senate Committee on Official Languages that Ottawa will aim to have half of all teenagers graduating from Canadian high schools effectively bilingual by 2010, up from one in four today. But continued support is needed to keep French immersion strong, says writer John Ralston Saul, a keynote speaker at last month’s French for the Future conference, a multi-city event promoting the career advantages of bilingualism. “We’re past the time when people should be defending immersion schooling,” says Saul. “They should be boasting about its success.”

For many parents, the appeal is clear. In 1997, Scott Hewlett surveyed 158 parents for his master’s thesis, exploring their reasons for choosing early French immersion. Hewlett, a teacher in St. John’s, Nfld., found that the most common response was “future employment enhancement.” A close second: “a more stimulating learning environment,” followed by “a better student-teacher ratio.” Experts would add that a second language not only bolsters command of ones mother tongue because students become more conscious of language structure, but makes the acquisition of other languages easier. And many researchers argue that immersion generally enhances a child’s cognitive abilities.

Those attributes help to explain its continued growth, despite a number of hurdles. Attrition rates can be high. The dropout rate hits its peak just before high school, often due to the smaller number of course options offered in French at the secondary level. In all grades, teachers can struggle with a shortage of French materials. A looming teacher shortage could also hit the program hard: French teachers are already among the most sought after in the field.

But French immersions very success may be its biggest curse—at least in New Brunswick. Canada's only officially bilingual province boasts the highest percentage of students in French immersion outside Quebec. Researchers warn that by attracting the best students, the French stream may be having a negative impact on the English stream. Last year, only 49 per cent of students in the Grade 6 and 7 core English program passed New Brunswick’s standardized mathematics test, compared with 75 per cent of students in French immersion. The immersion students also performed better in the province-wide English test.

According to Marie Cashion, a professor of education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, teachers in the English stream are burning out because they are left with a higher proportion of special-needs students. In a scenario common across Canada, immersion students who falter are shunted into the English system. “We’ve created a refugee class,” says Cashion. “Parents who want a quality education now feel they have no choice but French immersion.”

But for many, the decision is not so simple. French immersion can be a sink-or-swim proposition for those who start young. Inevitably, some students end up struggling. Parents who do not speak French have particular concerns over how they will help their children. Students often bear a heavier homework load—partly because they are learning grammar in two languages. Jane Wakefield, an instructor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia and mother of two immersion students at Vancouver’s Ecole Jules Quesnel, says her 11-year-old daughter, Joanna, works for up to three hours on a weeknight. Graham, age 9, averages an hour. Says Wakefield: “We’ve had lots of tears trying to understand what it is they’re expected to do.”

The first sign of trouble often comes by Grade 3 or 4, when English is introduced for the first time. Teachers home in on spelling and grammatical errors, and by Grade 5 or 6, most children have equaled or surpassed their peers in the English program. Claire Boychyn, principal of F. M. Fleard Public School, a French-immersion school in Whitby, Ont., saw evidence of that last year when the school’s first crop of Grade 6 students wrote Ontario’s standardized test for English and math. Their results placed them among the top five schools in the Durham District School Board. “But in Grade 4, their spelling is atrocious,” says Boychyn. “We warn the parents in advance, ‘Don’t be shocked.’ ”

For parents, a major attraction is ‘future employment enhancement’

As the battle to win entry to university becomes increasingly competitive, some parents are loath to gamble on a program that might compromise academic performance. And as more families turn to private schools, concern is also focused on passing entrance exams. Even otherwise gifted children can founder in immersion. But generally speaking, those who thrive display strong verbal and listening skills, as well as good visual and auditory memories. “So many parents don’t want their kids to miss any experience,” says Barbara Bresver, a Toronto-based psychologist. “But more effort has to be put into determining whether the program is a good match for a child’s learning style.”

Some researchers argue that even children with learning difficulties might be better off in a French immersion program. Fred Genesee, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal, and a well-known authority on immersion, points out that instruction usually involves frequent repetition, lots of visual aides and physical activity. “Many of these strategies are particularly helpful for those who aren’t good in school,’’says Genesee. “Kids with low academic ability don’t do any worse than their counterparts in English.”

But Bresver begs to differ. Sitting on the front lines, she has seen many children for whom French immersion has done more harm than good. Weak auditory learners are usually spotted early. But other problems can sometimes be masked by strong oral skills and good memories. “I see a lot of kids with great accents who can banter back and forth in French,” says Bresver. “They’re in Grade 3 or 4 by the time their parents realize, ‘Oh my God, my kid’s not really reading.’ ” for links

When there is a problem, addressing it can be difficult. In cases where parents have already twigged to trouble, schools can be reluctant to move their children out of the immersion stream. More often, the school board is unable to offer adequate remedial support, and prefers to return students to the English program. The emotional impact can be extraordinarily painful. Says Bresver: “I’ve seen children who are so down on themselves. They can’t quite figure out what they’re doing wrong.”

Experts believe that there may be a better alternative than maintaining two distinct language streams. Doug Willms, a professor of education at the University of New Brunswick, suggests a system that keeps all students together during the elementary years, and offers a frill range of enrichment programs in high school, ranging from technical offerings to math, science and languages. According to Willms, the Swedish school system is the most integrated in the world: the majority of students graduate with two languages, and are global leaders in literacy and numeracy. Willms believes that the superior performance of students in French immersion may have more to do with the fact that the program attracts a large proportion of students from comparatively higher socioeconomic backgrounds, who would perform well in any environment. He is most critical of the fact that immersion offers almost no opportunity for students to transfer back and forth. “It’s really the worst kind of streaming,” says Willms. “But it will take a government with courage to tackle the problem and come up with a program that’s fully inclusive.”

One fact is certain: the kind of French instruction that many Canadians grew up with—one period a day, or a few times a week—has largely failed when it comes to creating bilingual graduates. Joan Netten, an education professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., is overseeing a pilot project at two school districts in the province involving “intensive core” French. The program gives Grade 6 students a “mini-immersion” experience for the first five months of the year, with up to 80 per cent of their instruction in French. Afterwards, they return to core French with a new feel for the language. Traditionally, says Netten, “Students listen to a question and come back with an answer, but there’s no real conversation. With this program, they can actually communicate.”

While educators argue for their version of a brighter future, at least one issue seems beyond dispute: French immersion is extremely effective in creating functionally bilingual Canadians. “I’ve studied languages using other methods and never acquired anything close to the fluency I have in French,” says Bill Mlacak, a computer consultant now living in Vermont who graduated from a late-immersion program in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata in 1980. “The primary advantage of immersion is that it works.” And as the forces of globalization reach fever pitch, the need for languages has never been greater. After 35 years of debate, immersion may be an idea whose time has truly come.


The percentage of students enrolled in French immersion in 1998-1999

B.C. 4.6%

ALTA. 5%

SASK. 4.8%

MAN. 9.2%

ONT. 7.3%

QUE. 37.3%

N.B. 23.6%

P.E.I. 13.4%

N.S. 7.5%

NFLD. 4.4%

YUKON 6.6%

N.W.T. 2.8%

* English school boards only