Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/CEFutcher Image by: Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/CEFutcher
We think it would be great if our daughter could speak both English and French, so when she started school we signed her up for a French immersion program. We're not alone: 30 per cent of Canadian children are enrolled in some sort of second-language program. But are we doing our children any favours?
My wife's spelling is terrible as she often mixes up French and English. French immersion programs are obviously harder, too: only one in four children who enrol in kindergarten French immersion graduate in French immersion.
At the same time, I often hear how beneficial learning a second language is for brain development, not to mention the fact that knowing a second language opens doors and career opportunities -- and not just in our bilingual country. It all leaves me wondering: What are the pros and cons of French immersion schools?
"The research is pretty clear: there is no downside to being in French immersion," says Fred Genesee, a psychology professor at McGill University who has extensively researched French immersion programs. "Even if kids struggle or are not intellectually gifted, they do just as well as the same types of kids in an English-only program."
Many large-scale studies, including the 2001 Canadian Modern Language Review, have proven that French immersion students perform just as well -- or better -- in math, science and even English.
The benefits of French immersion
Other benefits of French immersion programs include being able to speak a second language, being eligible for job opportunities that require bilingualism and being more comfortable with foreign languages when travelling overseas.
Still, even avid proponents of French immersion programs -- including Genesee -- admit that they are not perfect: "Students graduate with quite high levels of French competency, but they make lots of errors with verb tense and their spelling is often not good," he explains.Genesee blames the way that the language is taught -- that is, statically, with little real-world integration -- and says that parents can play an important role in how bilingual a French immersion student truly becomes.
"There's a limit to how far kids can go if they are only learning French at school," he says. "Learning a language is a very complex skill -- one of the most complex we learn as humans."
Practice makes perfect
Practising French at home, going on student trips to French communities and spending family holidays in Quebec or other French-speaking areas -- really, anything that forces kids to speak French outside of school -- are all beneficial activities.
My wife is a perfect example. It wasn't until she spent a year of university in France that she became truly bilingual, able to converse comfortably in any setting. Though she rarely speaks French now, it only takes a day or two in Quebec before she's chatting comfortably with the locals. Meanwhile, I can barely manage to ask for a croissant.
A more damning criticism is the elitist nature of French immersion programs. A 2004 Statistics Canada report found that French immersion students are more likely to come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and to have parents who have a post-secondary education.
The report also found that the students who are less skilled in French tend to transfer out of immersion programs, which is likely related to a third finding: the availability of support services for students who have learning challenges are often inadequate in French immersion programs.
For example, in 2008, 17 per cent of children in English-only programs received special education throughout the year, while the figure in French immersion programs was only seven per cent.
"If children struggle, parents are often urged to move them to an English program because that's where the support services are," Genesee explains.
Already, in Grade 3, several of my daughter's friends have left the French immersion program -- often because they struggled with reading. My wife and I were also considering pulling our daughter out of French immersion because she is falling behind in reading in both French and English.
Boys are particularly under-represented in French immersion classrooms, likely because they tend to struggle with reading, says J. Douglas Willms, the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the University of New Brunswick.
His 2008 study found that there is "some segregation according to ability" between immersion and non-immersion programs. In five development criteria, "children enrolled in [French immersion] have significantly higher scores…. The differences are most pronounced in measures of cognitive and language skills, which are important predictors of academic success."
Socioeconomic groups within French immersion
"Children from higher socioeconomic groups tend to do well in any setting," Willms writes. "When children with lower abilities or children from lower socioeconomic groups are concentrated in particular schools or classes, they tend to perform worse than when they are in mixed ability classes."
The problem is not French immersion, says Genesee, but the lack of funding for support services in French. "In a bilingual country, I think everyone should have the ability to learn in French, no matter what," he says, especially considering that immersion is the best method of learning a second language and the fact that knowing more than one language is becoming increasingly important.
The Association for Canadian Studies found that workers who speak both French and English earn almost 10 per cent more than those who speak English alone.
"In the increasingly global world, kids who speak only English are going to be competing with kids who speak three or four or five languages," says Genesee. "There's no need to stop at French. We should offer three or four options for language immersion. The more languages they know, the more tools students will have to succeed in the global village."
Before talking to Genesee, I was leaning toward moving my daughter into an English-only program, but now I'm pretty focused on sticking with French immersion.
While a Mandarin, Spanish or Hindi immersion program (French sits 17th on the list of the world's most spoken languages) would be even more beneficial, learning French seems to only have upsides.