Halfway through junior kindergarten, Madeline Hugo* could already read, draw well and speak basic French. Staff at Hawthorne II Alternative Bilingual School suggested she skip a grade — her birthday was January 2, after all. Instead, Madeline’s parents enrolled her in a public French language school.
Far more intense than a bilingual curriculum, and even more focused on French than an immersion program, language schools are an increasingly popular choice for parents who want to challenge their kids and give the true fluency for the future.
Since Madeline’s father had attended a French school in Montreal, she was eligible to both attend École élémentaire Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau at no cost and get bussed every day. (You must have a francophone background or a parent who went to a French school or you will not be accepted.) It’s one of 11 public French schools in the city: five are part of a southern Ontario French board; six are in the French Catholic board.
Meanwhile, for about $25,000 a year, kids can attend private schools such as The Toronto French School (tfs.ca), The Giles School (gilesschool.ca) and Le Citadelle Academy (lacitadelleacademy.com), which teach all in French, and often offer courses in a third language too.
Students can also learn French, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian and other tongues in off-hours programs: school boards offer classes after school, as do private organizations such as Alliance Francaise (alliance-francaise.ca) and the Toronto Mandarin School (torontomandarinschool.com). The latter hopes to eventually offer a full-day school, says managing director Jennifer Chang.
Who’s right for it
Madeline loves her new school: the confident six year old has made new friends, speaks French at home and corrects her mother’s grammar. “Very verbal kids do well in language programs,” says Markle, director of admissions for the Toronto French School. It helps to be outgoing to adjust to the change and find friends.
Markle says any child can learn a language, but kids with hearing problems or certain learning disabilities may not thrive in a fully immersed language program.
Age counts too. Many children enter in the early grades, but most schools have protocols for accepting kids past grade one. The Toronto French School, for instance, has an introductory program that allows kids to merge into the school up to grade seven.
Fluency in two more languages has multiple benefits. Having solid French, Mandarin or Spanish increases your career options in an increasingly global job market. “In the future, nobody will speak just one language,” says Chang. When you learn a language, you absorb aspects of the culture.
That’s important for kids of immigrant parents or adoptees, but Markle says she finds it makes students more tolerant of others in general. Numerous studies also show that knowing one or more language makes you use more of your brain, increases creativity and may even ward off Alzheimer’s.
Often, brighter student get sent to language schools. “We don’t have the same norm, which means these are enrichment schools as a matter of course. You can go faster and in more depth,” says Markle.
Not for everyone
Public French schools are run by smaller boards with fewer resources. At Madeline’s school, many after-school activities like clubs and sports are run by outside groups, and there’s a fee. “We always seem to be paying out a hundred bucks here and there,” says Gillian Green, her mother.
Kids who are heavily involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities — such as Pascale’s older brother who remained at the old school — may not find what they want at these schools. Meanwhile, since all communications home are in French, and Green is not fully bilingual, it’s harder for her to feel connected to the school.
While private schools come with hefty tuitions, good part-time programs can be costly too. And to get anywhere close to fluent, kids have to stick with these programs. “It’s a huge commitment,” says Chang, particularly since her school asks kids to sign up for evening or weekend classes for the entire year.
As our world gets smaller, knowing more than one language, and knowing it well, is going to be increasingly important. Language schools offer fluency and challenge — a leg up parents and students find appealing.
Start ’em young
The earlier a child learns a second or third language, the more likely they are to become fluent. That’s why language-focused daycares are cropping up all over Toronto. This fall, the Toronto French School is introducing Jardin d’éveil, a program for two-year-olds that’s essentially a French immersion daycare that flows into its pre-kindergarten program for three-year-olds. Numerous daycares put French on the agenda, while the Petite Maison Montessori in East York (petitemaison.ca) introduces toddlers to French, Spanish and Greek. And the Toronto Mandarin Schools runs the JINGBAO Bilingual Children’s Centre, a preschool and enriched Kindergarten program that’s opening its third centre this fall.
*Name has been changed