When you have a state-run education system it seems that all education is political, n’est-ce pas? The French Immersion debate has once again reared its head in the Province of New Brunswick, the same place that gave birth to the COR party. The Confederation of Regions party’s main platform was to reverse official bilingualism in the province.
The Minister has commissioned another review of the system which has opened up the debate, especially from Canadian Parents for French. I have not had time to examine, once again, all factors at play, but here are some of my personal observations. Both of our sons are in the French Immersion program (Grades 8 & 10) and my wife and I, both bilingual, have been fairly active in their education.
The Early Immersion program starts in Grade 1 and all of the research that I have read on the subject shows that earlier is better. Given that information, it would be better if French Immersion began in kindergarten. Actually, I would prefer that it was the ONLY program, with no opting out. Second language skills are one of the few long-term cognitive skills taught in the system which are useful in a broad sense and easily transported beyond school.
The critical factor in second-language immersion is the teacher’s ability in that language. With only one person to emulate, the students need an excellent example. The Berlitz method is based on this understanding. Our experience has included several teachers with very poor French language skills.
The Immersion program in our schools also lacks adequate resources, so that students with any special needs must transfer out of the program in order to get the attention they require. This results in fewer children with behavioural challenges in French Immersion, and of course more with challenges in what’s known as the Core program. Over the years, a self-selection process has developed, with the many of the more actively involved parents opting for French Immersion, as this seems to be a “better” program for their children. Add to this the “my kids don’t need no French” factor plus real advantages for government employment as a bilingual individual and French Immersion becomes highly politicized.
This separation of French and English not only occurs at school, where the immersion students are known as “French kids”. It also happens at the Departmental level with two separate educational systems (Organization Chart, PDF) and curricula. For example, we have French-speaking schools within a 30 minute drive, yet not once have I heard of an exchange program in the past decade. The kids don’t get a chance to talk with each other. Indeed, two solitudes.