Should you put your kids in French immersion?

The debate starts before your child can even recite her ABCs: Will you put her in French immersion?

Photo: Tony Lanz

Growing up in Calgary, I didn’t know one person who was enrolled in French immersion. I struggled through core French, and graduated from high school knowing little more of a second language than when I went in. When I travelled abroad, I couldn’t say much more than “Je m’appelle Nancy,” or “Me llamo Nancy,” and sometimes wished I could communicate more effectively. But to be honest, knowing only English wasn’t a hugely significant issue in my life. Then I had kids.

A few decades later, I’m the mother of three children (ages six, four and two), and I have a dilemma. Should we enrol our children in a French-immersion school? My husband argues that it makes sense to keep our kids in the perfectly good, English-only community school that’s just three blocks from our home. I point out that the French-immersion school is only a five-minute drive away. But I do worry that since no one in our family speaks French, my children’s ability to learn a new language will be limited, and we won’t be able to help them with school work. Then again, I’d never discourage my kid from taking a physics or calculus class, for example, just because I know I wouldn’t be able to keep up. If we choose not to place our children in the French stream, I fear they’ll be at a severe disadvantage when they apply for university or enter the job market. Some parents think bilingualism will soon be as important as having a university degree.

Since 2000, national enrollment in French immersion has soared, with almost every province seeing growth. (New Brunswick is the only province where enrollment has decreased.) Throughout the ’90s, enrollment rates held steady at 7.9 percent, but by last year, 14 percent of all Canadian students were enrolled in French immersion, and the numbers continue to climb. The demand is most pronounced in Ontario and on the east and west coasts — Prince Edward Island’s enrollment accounts for almost 25 percent of their total student population, and lotteries and enrollment caps are now common in British Columbia.

“French immersion growth is outstripping our overall growth,” says Shirley Ann Teal, superintendent of Education for Peel, the GTA school district where my family lives. This year, when numbers topped out at 25 percent, our board placed a cap on the program and started a lottery system to get in. My son has been accepted to start French immersion next year, in grade one, but there’s no guarantee that his younger siblings will also get in, which is one of my biggest concerns.

“The first wave of French immersion graduates are having children and placing them in the program, too, because it worked for them,” says Lisa Marie Perkins, president of Canadian Parents for French, a volunteer group that promotes French as a second language for Canadian kids. But that’s only part of the story. A recent survey by the Peel District School Board found that one of the top reasons parents in my district enroll their children in the French stream is to open the door to future opportunities.

“For many parents, French immersion is seen as a way to get their child into what they consider to be a better school,” says Janet McDougald, our school-board chair. Some parents refer to it, half-jokingly, as akin to free private school. French-immersion schools do tend to score higher on provincial exams. French programs can also be self-selecting, often drawing the most involved parents, and the most academic students, which sometimes causes English programs to suffer. What parent wouldn’t want their kids surrounded by the smartest, most motivated peers possible?
Advocates argue that early immersion is the best way to learn a second language, but research has shown that there’s actually more than just language skills at stake. A 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that learning a new language — especially between the ages of five and seven — improves the working memory, which is responsible for tasks such as reading and math. Another 2013 study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at elderly bilingual people and found that speaking more than one language from childhood increases cognitive flexibility — and the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances — later in life. It also increases the size of the hippocampus, a deep-lying brain structure that’s involved in learning new material and spatial navigation, and enhances three parts of the cerebral cortex.

Then there’s the lingering “what if” question. No one wants to limit a child’s life aspirations. “You don’t know who or what your child will want to be,” says Perkins. “You need to be bilingual to become prime minister. Isn’t that option the right of every child?”

In the likely event your child doesn’t end up at 24 Sussex Drive, he or she may need another language simply to get a job. French advocacy groups claim the unemployment rate for bilinguals is three percent lower than it is for Canadians who only speak English. They also point out that bilinguals earn an average of 10 percent more than monolingual people, making it more important than ever for new graduates to speak a second language. All of this evidence, however, does nothing for parents like me who are worried about whether we’ll be able to help our kids when the going gets tough.

“We were told we wouldn’t have to do anything, and that’s not what we’ve experienced,” says Kimberly Park*, a Toronto mom. Her six-year-old son, Liam, brings home French words to review, and Park feels she can’t go over them with him, because she doesn’t know how to pronounce them herself. While on mat leave, she volunteered in Liam’s class once a week, and saw her son and a handful of other children “silently struggle” because they didn’t understand what was going on. “I feel so guilty for putting Liam in French immersion, because I haven’t been able to support him at home,” she says. “The standout kids all have at least one French-speaking parent.”

She’s considering switching him to the English stream for grade one. Perkins urges anxious moms and dads to trust the process, and says her English-only parents couldn’t help her when she was a student in French immersion, either. “It’s designed for students without a French-speaking parent at home.” The most important thing you can do is provide a positive learning environment and be willing to get extra help (like a tutor or learning buddy) if needed. Remember that math is usually — but not always — taught in English (check with your area’s program).

McDougald says that before parents decide, they also need to know whether they’re comfortable pulling their child out of French immersion if they need to, and fine with sending siblings to separate schools or programs (if only one or two kids are taking the French route). Is your child adaptable to change, and does he handle transitions well? Will your family be able to manage two different school schedules if necessary? “Ultimately, as a parent, you know your child best,” says McDougald.

She also argues that when a child is struggling, sticking it out in a French classroom can be more damaging than the trauma of switching back to an English one. “How would you like to be deposited into a classroom where you’re not comfortable and don’t understand what the teacher is saying, and it doesn’t get better?” she asks. “Continual exposure to a stressful situation can undermine confidence.” She feels that if a child has been facing challenges year after year, it’s time to go back to English.

Most of my research has made a strong case for French, but the decision hasn’t been so simple for us. My gut tells me I should send my children to French immersion, but my heart says to keep them in the same school, where we’re comfortable, and where they have many neighbourhood pals. Right now, my gut is winning, but I still have a few more months to change my mind.

*Names have been changed.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2013 issue with the headline “Trending French,” p. 97.

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