Is French Immersion a Good Idea for Your Child?

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Ahhhh, French Immersion. As a Canadian parent, it’s a topic you’ll likely have to consider at some point in your child’s academic career. Since the 1970s, Canadian public schools have offered French Immersion as a method of encouraging bilingualism following the 1969 Official Languages Act cementing French as Canada’s second official language.

Over the last 50 years, parents have flocked to French Immersion in escalating numbers. Aside from the touted cognitive advantages of multilingualism and potential career advantages, parents have been attracted by smaller class sizes and an air of exclusivity.

French Immersion has become known jokingly as “The Poor Man’s Private School.” But do the results warrant the hype? Is French Immersion truly beneficial for most children?

How Does French Immersion Work?

The French Immersion program is designed to develop bilingual speakers who are proficient in both Canada’s official languages: English and French.

In Canada, French Immersion is offered in two stages. During the first, from kindergarten to middle school, more than half of classes are delivered in French. Then, through Extended French in high school, at least 25% of classes are delivered in French.

The Ontario Ministry of Education defines the differences between French Immersion and Extended French as such:

“The French Immersion program is designed to provide students with a minimum of 3,800 hours of instruction in French by the end of Grade 8. Students learn French as a subject and French serves as the language of instruction in two or more other subjects.

The Extended French program will provide students with a minimum of 1,260 hours of instruction in French by the end of Grade 8. Students learn French as a subject and French serves as the language of instruction in at least one other subject.”

Based on research demonstrating the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, French Immersion is touted as a system of enrichment and excellence. But as decades of research accumulate and we become more aware of inequity in education, the criticism of French Immersion is picking up steam. Before making a decision about your child’s language education, let’s review the facts.

 

Will French Immersion Delay My Child’s English Language Skills?

In short, not typically, if your child is a “good candidate” for an immersion program, which may depend more on whether the school system has adequate staff, resources and ability to help your child access support when needed.

Research on immersion programs around the world shows that children who benefit from complete second-language immersion are as proficient, and in some cases, more so, than their non-immersion peers when it comes to basic English and math.

Some studies – and parents – have observed a temporary lag in English language spelling, punctuation and word knowledge among children who are in complete immersion with no English instruction until between grades 2 and 5. However, these same studies also found that within one to two years of English language instruction being introduced, the delay disappeared and left no long-term repercussions to English skills or literacy in general.

In fact, second language immersion around the world is on the rise with the progress of globalization. Multilingualism is more common and other governments and school systems around the world have overtaken the once heralded Canadian system. The European Union now collectively aims for a “mother tongue plus two” benchmark, set in 2002 with the aim to educate all European students in not just their mother tongue but two second languages.

French Immersion won’t negatively impact the academic trajectory of the average student, and it may even help sharpen langague and math skills. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that it also won’t turn your child into a native French speaker. Research on second language immersion suggests that native English speakers in second language immersion don’t quite gain the accuracy and complexity of speech that a native speaker has.

Is French Immersion Worth It?

Deciding whether French Immersion is right for your child will  depend on the child. Some children tend to succeed in French Immersion when they start out with particular advantages. If your child is naturally oriented toward language acquisition, interested in talking, reading and writing, and naturally conversational, they may take to the immersion classroom like a fish in water.

If your child has a learning disability, particularly one involving auditory or language processing, it might be overwhelming to learn English and French while also receiving the individualized support they may need at school and at home. In many schools, French language teachers are in short supply and resource teachers available for language and math support may not be bilingual.

This dearth of support for learning disabled and EFL students who wish to pursue French Immersion may be part of the reason that research shows wealthy families tend to opt for immersion more frequently than lower income families. In the 2009-10 school year, 23% of all French immersion students enrolled in the Toronto District School Board came from families in the top 10 per cent of income, while only 4% came from the bottom 10 per cent of family income.

It might be the belief that a French Immersion education connotes a higher “status.” Perhaps wealthier families tend to have more resources available to supply tutoring and homework support for subjects delivered in French. It’s also worth considering that first generation and immigrant Canadians may be learning English as a second language and/or speak multiple languages at home already, meaning that adding French language instruction is far less attractive. Whatever the exact forces at work, there is undeniably an unintentional but problematic socioeconomic stratification which affects the diversity of immersion classrooms.

As the world goes global, having more than one language can certainly be an advantage. However, as with most decisions about your child’s education, the decision to pursue French Immersion comes down to whether it enriches or hinders your child’s success and your family life. If you choose not to enrol your child in French Immersion, remember that your child may choose to learn a second language as an adult.  You’re never doing your child a disservice if you’ve chosen the right path for both of you.

 

What was your experience in French Immersion? Did you and/or your child benefit from the program? Did you decide against it? Share below!