How to know if French immersion is right for your kid

Educators say learning French expands minds and future job possibilities, and that all students can thrive in an immersion program. But some parents report that full-time French just wasn’t right for their kids. Here’s how to suss out what’s best for yours.

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For Peter Barnes, French immersion was a walk in the park. He began in grade one, says his mother, Shereen Barnes, and took to it right away. Now in grade six, he loves immersion, and “he even seems to think in French,” says the Mississauga, Ont. mom.

But the same can’t be said for Peter’s little sister, Lila. Just like her big bro, she started immersion in grade one, but by the end of the first week, problems were cropping up. She was acting out in class and complaining to her parents after school, saying things like, “I didn’t have a good day” and “I don’t like French.”

Barnes was torn. On the one hand, she had her heart set on providing her daughter with the chance to become bilingual. “I thought it would give her an advantage in life,” she says. “A second language is always good when you’re applying for jobs.” And there’s merit to that: A University of Guelph study found that bilingual men earn 3.6 percent more and bilingual women 6.6 percent more than those who speak English only.

But on the other hand, it was heartbreaking for Barnes to see her daughter struggle. “She continued to act out, she didn’t do well on assignments, and she was beating herself up about it, knowing other kids were doing better,” she says.

When she switched Lila out of French immersion for grade two, things improved immediately. “It was so much better,” says Barnes. Now in grade three, Lila is happy to trot off to school every day. “I really think it’s a personality thing,” says Barnes. “It’s not that my son is smarter or better in school. It’s just that every kid is different.”

Although it didn’t work out, Barnes certainly isn’t alone in wanting a bilingual education for her children. French immersion enrolment in Canada has never been higher, as parents clamour for the chance to offer their kids a school experience that could give them a leg up in the labour market one day, plus allow them to reap the well-documented cognitive rewards of knowing two languages. Canadian Parents for French, a volunteer organization that promotes and creates opportunities for French-language learning, says the number of students in French immersion has been rising steadily since the mid-’90s.

But while education ministries and school boards across the country say French immersion can work for all students, the stories of parents like Barnes suggest that it simply doesn’t.

So how do you know if immersion is right for your kid? There’s no one formula for figuring this out—especially if the program you’re considering starts in kindergarten or grade one, when there hasn’t been much time to get to know your child’s learning style. But there are some things parents, teachers and French immersion experts say you should keep in mind as you make your decision.

1. Early talkers may find it easier to parle en Français

If you’ve got a chatty little kid who started talking early and progressed quickly to full sentences, that’s a pretty good sign she may do well in French immersion, says Joanne Robertson, who taught immersion for nearly 20 years and is currently director of instruction for the North Vancouver School District. Does your child pick up new vocabulary easily? Imitate speech she hears from you or from books? Notice that the word “cat” starts with a hard “kuh” sound, just like the word “kitten?” This awareness of sounds suggests your child has an affinity for language that could make her keen on learning a second one.

“Children who are having difficulty with their first language might not be as successful,” says Robertson. Her own son was a language-delayed child who didn’t speak at all until he was four, so she chose not to put him in the early immersion program, because there’s an expectation that children will speak and take risks with language. She did, however, enrol him in late immersion in grade six, where he flourished all the way through grade 12.

Anxiety in new situations may also make early immersion tough on your kid, says Robertson—a good thing to keep in mind if your child is, for example, the type who stays on your lap with her face hidden in your neck for a whole year of playgroup. “The child who fears risk or fears making mistakes might not do as well,” she says.

2. It isn’t supposed to matter, but homework time may be a heck of a lot easier if mom or dad can speak French

Loukia Zigoumis—whose 10-year-old, Christos, entered late immersion last year in grade four—was told it wouldn’t be a problem that she isn’t fluent in French. Still, homework duty ended up falling to her husband, whose French skills are stronger, and the Ottawa couple ultimately put Christos in tutoring once a week for help.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Edmonton mom Natasha Chiam is a product of a French immersion program herself. “Homework isn’t an issue because I’m bilingual, and the homework is mostly reading and dictée [dictation] at this point,” says Chiam. Still, she and her husband, who does not speak French, wrestled with the question of homework before deciding to enrol their kids. He’s the stronger of the couple in math and science, and worries he won’t be able to pitch in when Calis, 8, and Leryn, 6, start to bring home more complicated math and science homework.

But there can be an upside to this challenge. “It really does force the parent-child separation for managing their homework,” says Toronto mom of two Andrea Ellison, whose daughter, Hannah, 11, has thrived in French immersion. “She has to do it herself. She has to manage her projects by herself, too.”

Nancy Wise, a French immersion educational consultant based in Toronto, stresses that school boards are expected to make their programs suitable to all kinds of learners from all kinds of backgrounds. “Most of the parents don’t speak French—that is what the program is for,” says Wise.

But she acknowledges that there can be challenges. “I worked in French immersion for 20 years. It’s not news to me that a child who struggles may have parents who are at their wits’ end trying to help with homework and be successful in school. But the resources are out there.” For instance, the website of Canadian Parents for French (cfp.ca) has loads of support for parents, including homework tip sheets and webinars that address a lot of common problems. The websites fslhomeworktoolbox.ca and tfo.org/education are also helpful, and many individual school boards offer their own online resources as well.

If homework hour is still a struggle, and a tutor who is a certified teacher is too expensive, Wise suggests parents look for high school French immersion students to help out. “They’re a lot less money and very keen.”

3. Your kid isn’t going to learn French overnight

If your child is struggling after a couple of months or even longer, that doesn’t mean immersion isn’t going to work out. “It’s important that parents have realistic expectations about their children’s performance and allow room for them to adapt,” says Kathy Hennessey, who teaches French immersion at Connaught Street Elementary in Fredericton. In New Brunswick, immersion begins in grade three, so “kids who are used to being able to perform well right at the start may experience frustration at first,” Hennessey says. On curriculum nights, she reassures many worried moms and dads that language acquisition takes time. For some kids, things will start to jell within a month; others may need a bit longer.

Laura Webb,* who teaches a grade one-two split French immersion class at a school on Vancouver Island, agrees. She says parents shouldn’t assume there’s a problem if their child hits bumps that first year. It could just be that reading and writing haven’t jelled yet, something that happens at different times for different kids, regardless of whether it’s in English or French.

That was certainly the case for Chiam’s son. “Calis has an eight-year-old cousin in English, and he was feeling bad because he wasn’t reading as well as his cousin,” she says, adding that this was likely because her son was learning to read in French first. “Now I’d say they’re pretty much on par with each other. For parents who have that concern, it’s going to come.”

If your kid—and you—can stick it out, there are real cerebral benefits to being bilingual, says Susan Elliott, executive director of the learning forum of Canada’s International School (formerly the Toronto French School). “The cognitive benefit [of bilingualism] over a lifetime is fairly well-documented,” she says, pointing to studies that show it helps the brain more efficiently process information and staves off cognitive decline later in life. Speaking two languages has even been associated with better memory, visual-spatial skills and creativity.

4. Some kids will struggle in either stream

If your French immersion kid is having trouble, French may not be the issue. Consider that she may actually have learning problems unrelated to immersion. Earl Hauser’s daughter, Raquel, started French immersion in kindergarten. “We eventually discovered she had a learning disability in reading and writing, so learning in both English and French was too much,” says the Calgary dad. “But if she was only taking English, she would still have had the same disability arise.” Hauser and his wife ended up taking Raquel out of immersion for grades five and six so she could focus on writing and reading in English. Last year, Raquel began a grade seven late-immersion program.

When it comes to learning disabilities, early intervention is key—but that’s hard to access in a system in which there are sometimes year-long waits for publicly funded psychoeducational assessments, and education assistants and special-ed teachers—especially in French—are in high demand. Wise believes passionately that every Canadian child should have the opportunity to become bilingual but admits there aren’t yet the resources to ensure French immersion is fully inclusive. In the past, says Wise, kids who struggled were “counselled out” of French immersion in their elementary years—that is, gently nudged into the English stream by teachers and principals. But she notes that, in her experience, more and more families are resisting that process today. “However, they have to fight really hard to get their children the support they need.”

While teachers are not meant to show anyone the door, it’s their responsibility to talk with parents if a child is struggling in French immersion, says Webb, noting that there should be many conversations about the issues before it comes to that. “As a teacher, you’re supposed to be an advocate for the kid. If they’re not performing well, and they don’t seem like they’re into it—for instance, if they never make an effort to speak French in the classroom—you tell the parents, ‘I just don’t think this is right for your child, and they would probably be more successful if they were in a regular English program.’”

5. There are not enough French immersion teachers—and that could affect your kid’s experience

While the supply of good immersion teachers varies depending on where you live, be aware that your child’s school may face staffing problems. Jennifer Hicks has three kids in immersion in Toronto public schools. She’s been impressed with the quality of her kids’ French immersion teachers—until they go on maternity or other leave. “The pool of long-term occasional (LTO) teachers to hire for those positions seems really shallow,” she says. “There is such a demand for FI teachers that the good ones are hired full time.” For most of grade four, one of Hicks’s sons had an LTO who she describes as “a horrible, horrible teacher who bullied the kids.” When her daughter was in grade two, she had an LTO whose French was weak. “His accent wasn’t strong, and dictée words would be misspelled.”

Less-populated areas have even more trouble hiring good people. The province of Manitoba has sent recruitment teams to Montreal and Ottawa to convince native French speakers to move there, says Winnipeg School Division board chair Mark Wasyliw. “We hired 10 positions for French immersion subs. Because they’re so scarce, we give them full-time positions.”

6. Trust your own instincts

While Toronto mom Andrea Ellison’s daughter has done well in French immersion, she and her husband decided to give it a pass for their son, Michael, who is eight. “He’s got high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, and he was still grappling with English in kindergarten.” While Ellison says she wishes Michael could have had the same opportunity as Hannah to become bilingual, they’re confident in their decision to keep him in the English stream. “When a child is struggling to keep up with their peers in their primary language, you don’t force them into a second language. In French immersion, they have to learn all their core subjects in French, and I just can’t imagine how stressful that would be for a child who’s struggling with two-digit addition or subtraction. That’s not a recipe for success.” Ellison says her advice to parents contemplating the program is to “remember that you know your child best.”

In Ottawa, Loukia Zigoumis says she now knows French immersion is not right for her son. She and her husband decided to take him out of immersion for grade five and instead put him in the school’s extended French program, which will give him more French instruction than he’d have in the core program without the struggle of taking all of his subjects in French. “His main interest is math and science. He’s getting good marks in all areas except for French. We felt with his strong desire to learn as much as he can about science in English, we should make the switch back,” says Zigoumis. Her gut feeling? “French immersion isn’t for everyone.”

*Name has been changed

Read more:
Dropping out of French immersion>
8 things I wish I’d known about French immersion>
In defense of French immersion>

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