Deciding on the right educational path for your child is one of the most stressful experiences you face as a parent. When my oldest was five years old, my husband and I chose to put him in French immersion. He's a bright kid, all his little buddies were headed that way, too, and we travel to France regularly to visit family. In the end, though, French immersion was a disaster for my son, and he joined the 30 percent of kids who left before grade six.
We still decided to put his younger siblings through the program hoping that he was the outlier, however, none of our kids were a good fit. We're in the process of removing our daughter, knowing she'll have a tough transition back to English. That being said, it doesn’t mean French immersion won’t work for your child. Some kids thrive, and many schools do an incredible job creating an authentic French environment. But that didn’t happen for us.
Here's my highly biased list of the things I wish I'd known before I chose French immersion for my family:
1. It's boring: Imagine sitting in a room where the teacher only spoke Russian, and you couldn't understand a word. That's the experience for many kids entering French immersion. For the first few years, the lessons are watered down to simple language acquisition as opposed to language expansion. For example, in the English stream, kids are learning that cats are nocturnal. In French, the kids are learning to say cat. That's a significant difference that may work for some kids, but for others it's too dull. It gets more interesting in grade five, but almost a third of kids have dropped out by then.
2. Immersion is not necessarily for gifted kids (or kids with a learning disability): I registered my eldest son thinking that French was an enriched program that would challenge him. I was wrong. For a child who was used to mastering language, and who learns by asking many questions, immersion was deadly for my son. He shut down and didn’t learn. After we chose to pull him out, the principal agreed that most gifted kids are not a good fit for French immersion—they require a more stimulating environment. Learning in a second language can also exacerbate a learning disability, making it doubly hard to meet the requirements.
3. There is a limited pool of French immersion teachers: At the French immersion information evening I attended, our school's principal told the new parents that there's a limited pool of French teachers to fill vacant spots. She revealed her difficulties in finding people who meet both the language requirement and the teaching standards. In our experience, the teaching body tends to be older with a more old-school approach. Last year, our school didn’t have a French resource teacher for half the year—so if your child needed extra help you had to pay for a private tutor. This was one of the most challenging issues in the immersion program.
4. It’s rote learning: The immersion curriculum is outdated and based on old-fashioned concepts, such as memorizing a weekly dictée. Many students who do well in immersion are the ones who are able to sit, listen and do repetitive work.
5. Many students are not a good fit: The principal at my kids' school says only one in three kids are a good fit for immersion. None of my kids excelled in the program, although they are very bright and curious learners.
6. There's a split between French and English streams: My school has a dual-track program—meaning there are two classes per grade in each language. However, there's a noticeable divide in social dynamics for both kids and parents. For example, my kids don’t know the English kids and vice versa. The English kids call the French kids “French fries” and the French kids call the English kids “English muffins.” The school denies this divide happens, but the kids know the truth. It also affects the gender balance—by grade six the English stream is primarily boys and the French stream is mostly girls.
7. My high school French is not good enough to help them: There's this idea that the kids will be able to explain their homework to you, so if your French isn’t up to par it doesn’t matter. Wrong! When have kids ever listened and understood their homework in any language? I thought my passable high school French would get us through, but most nights ended in tears. Eventually, we hired a tutor. I made her tea and cookies because I was so relieved to have someone doing the kids’ homework with them in my place.
8. Their greatest skill is conversational French: My kids have beautiful French accents, and they can talk to people in French without a second thought. Their writing skills are not as strong, but in the end the fact that they can converse easily is more important to me than if they can conjugate past participle correctly.
When the French immersion system was set up in the 1970s, it had lofty goals of creating a bilingual country. However, the implementation of the program (in Ontario, at least), has been less than perfect—only some kids have access to it, and the curriculum itself is in need of an overhaul. But the demand is there—immersion saw a 12 percent increase in 2011 and 342,000 students were enrolled in primary and secondary immersion programs in 2011. What will be interesting to see is what percentage of those kids graduate from high school.
Hearing my kids speak French with their beautiful accents and rolling “Rs” is a joy. And I’m not quite ready to say that placing them in immersion was a mistake. But the experience was different than what I expected and I'm sorry they had to go through those tough transitions when we pulled them out.
I know that some of you are going to disagree with me, so what do you think of immersion?
READ MORE: In defense of French Immersion, Miriam Porter's response to this article.