In defense of French immersion

Miriam Porter had never considered French immersion for her son until she discovered he excelled at the language. She shares her experience here.
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Photo: iStockphoto

This blog post is in response to Emma Waverman’s “8 things I wish I’d known about French immersion”

My son, now in grade three, ended up in French immersion by chance. But it was the best chance that ever happened to his education. The English school in my district didn’t have the greatest reputation and the French immersion school had an amazing one, but no English stream as a back up. I actually considered moving into a different school district because French was never a consideration.

But when my son was in nursery school, a French teacher that taught his class once a week stopped me on the sidewalk. She said how much my son loved French and was benefiting from the class. I stared at her shocked. “He does? But why?” How can my three-year-old love French? But he really did. That two-minute conversation sparked a series of questions and research into the world of French immersion. I spoke to other moms and did a ton of research. Everything was overwhelmingly positive in favour of French immersion. (And if he went to the school in our area, we wouldn’t have to move).

At the school’s information session I learned it’s actually geared toward kids of English-speaking parents (that’s me!). This was a huge relief since aside from bonjour and merci French is totally lost on me.

Now, five years later, my son attends one of the best public French immersion schools in our city and absolutely loves it. It’s been interesting, inspiring and challenging for him since day one.

1. “French is exciting—not boring at all!”
The above sentence is a direct quote from my son after I let him read the article in question. My son is challenged daily in school. French in early grades is so much more than learning how to say English words in French. In fact, I can’t believe all the stuff he’s learned over the years. I’m the annoying parent that volunteers for everything and has spent time in the classroom. I see firsthand what they are learning and get to know the students and teachers. Whether it’s visual art, science, theatre, geometric shapes, social studies, geography, seasons, water, plants and soil, animals, group work, projects or a performance the students work on collectively. These kids are anything but bored!

2. It’s the teacher that makes school interesting, challenging and motivates students to learn
Classroom success depends on the teacher. Yes, my son has a weekly dictée, but that is a small part of the curriculum. The lessons are so much more than memorizing; it’s problem solving and thinking outside the box. I am not a fan of the banking method of education (think Paulo Freire), but if you believe that is all there is to French immersion it’s simply not true. Just last week my son and I met with his teacher and he was encouraged to always “go above and beyond the obvious, consider all angles, think outside the box, and come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.”

3. You don’t need to speak French to help your kids with homework
In grade nine, I received 48 percent in French and I begged my teacher to give me a passing grade (he did!) and I never took French again. So not only is my French “not up to par”—it simply does not exist. But my son does listen in class and (usually) understands the homework. He is not an anomaly; his classmates (usually) understand it, too. Sure, there are times when my son can’t figure out a word here and there, or maybe even a sentence, but that is what Google translate is for! Type in the French word and it spits out the English translation. Problem solved.

If you’re like me and worry about helping your kids with fractions (let alone in another language) you can purchase the same math text in English to keep at home.

Other ideas: Use a French/English Dictionary or call another mom and figure it out together, both these strategies have worked for me. When all else fails I email his teacher.

4. The benefits of bilingualism are huge
Being exposed to two languages at a young age has been linked to numerous cognitive benefits, social advantages, there are practical benefits in a globalized world, it can improve intellectual stimulation, and gives people the opportunity to be a part of different diverse communities. These benefits are true of any second language your child may learn, but hey, we live in Canada, a country with two official languages, it definitely can’t hurt to know both of them.

5. Teachers are there to help
No teacher wants a student to struggle and if they see this is happening hopefully a meeting will take place with a plan moving forward. All my son’s teachers have spoken English as well and have been open to all my questions and concerns. Some teachers are better than others, but that’s life and has nothing to do with French immersion.

6. There are more job opportunities for people that are bilingual
These days the job market and economy is challenging for everyone in fields across the board. My friends that completed French immersion through high school had more job opportunities and offers because they could speak and write fluent French, this is especially true with government positions. As teenagers they had more summer job placements and multiple offers of employment when they graduated. Plus, if you ever want your kid to be prime minister, French is a definite asset. Eh?

7. You can travel to French speaking cities and have your kid interpret for you
Last year in Montreal’s famous Jacques-Cartier Square, I ordered the maple syrup drizzled over ice thing-y in French. I was given an apple instead. My son, hiding in embarrassment tells me, “Mommy! That’s the wrong word and you didn’t even pronounce it right!” Back at our hotel I request extra pillows from room service. But a kettle arrives. Then I try explaining to hotel staff I need a knife to cut up vegetables and it becomes a game of charades as the room attendant speaks no English. I act out stabbing myself and falling to the floor. My son is in hysterics. The next day I get us totally lost on the Metro subway, because obviously I can’t read French either.

After that we decided I was not allowed to speak French to anyone and my eight-year-old was taking over all translations. I didn’t argue. We have since traveled to Quebec City and Ottawa and he is my official interpreter. I even let him order the French fries.

8. French immersion is not for everyone, but if it’s a good fit for your child here are some tips
French immersion is not for every child. Even school is not for every child. Some kids excel in a homeschool environment, some are better at alternative or arts-based schools. The same goes for an English versus French stream. Kids are individuals, what works for one may not work for another. I have a friend that removed her child from French and her daughter is much happier in English. But what I do know is that French is great for my guy and great for so many others too. I just hate to see French immersion get a bad rap.

Tips:

  • In the summer, instead of reading French books I encourage him to read books in English so he’s used to reading in both languages
  • We sometimes watch movies and television shows in French, this was especially helpful in kindergarten and grade one with his favourite cartoons
  • Your heart will melt when you hear your kid sing their first French song, record it
  • Maybe you even want to take a French course to study along with your child (not me!)
  • There are support networks out there if French immersion is something that you and your child both want to pursue
  • Seriously don’t be afraid to use Google Translate, it’s not cheating when the teacher says it’s OK

Miriam Porter is a freelance writer and journalist. She writes about family travel, parenting, social justice, children’s rights and veganism for newspapers, magazines and websites across North America. You can follow her on Twitter @MiriamRiverP.

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