French immersion schooling: One parent's look at the pros and cons

A French immersion parent weighs the long-term benefits of French immersion against the learning challenges.

By Ryan Stuart

What are the pros and cons of French immersion
Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/CEFutcher
My wife and I both attended French immersion schools. I switched to an English-only school in Grade 2 when my family moved to Australia, while my wife graduated in a French immersion program.

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.

Career opportunities
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.

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