If you are as old as I am, you’ll remember that high school in Ontario was once five years. But I was in such a hurry to get out and get on with my life that I carefully planned my courses so I could finish in four. As a result, when I was in Grade 11 I got an award for the highest mark in OAC (aka Grade 13) French. Formidable!
So it was quite a rude awakening when I sat through my first university-level French class and realized I couldn’t read, speak or write well enough to understand anything that was going on. I had planned to take French all through university, but fearful of losing a scholarship, I dropped the course to keep my average up (which I think says volumes about the value of marks over learning in our system, but I digress). In the end I just missed out on renewing that scholarship for my second year anyway (sorry mom and dad!) so in hindsight, I should have stuck with the course, taken a hit in the marks department, and maybe learned to communicate in another language.
The popularity of French Immersion has been in the news quite a bit lately. A certain columnist I generally can’t be bothered to read has even addressed it. According to her, and others who have weighed in on the topic, parents are putting their children in FI because they think it’s the next best thing to private school and because they are trying to segregate their children from students with behavioral issues, students who need Special Education or ESL support, and students from poor families.
Well, as a parent with one child in French Immersion, and another registered to start in the fall, allow me to confess the reason I chose FI: because I want my children to learn French. And from personal experience, I don’t believe the Core French program is enough. Canada is officially a bilingual country—it just makes sense to me to expose my children to both languages. Because my husband and I only speak English, a second language is something we can’t pass on to our kids. So I’m thrilled that immersion is an option in our public schools. Do I also think my children are bright, and that FI offers them additional challenge? Absolutely.
I am not certain, but I suspect BB#1’s FI school is actually more diverse in socio-economic terms than BB#2’s English-stream school. Students are bused there from a variety of neighborhoods, while the students at our home school are all walking distance (so, presumably within the same socio-economic demographic.) Culturally, both schools are diverse: according to the principal at BB#1’s school, there are more than 20 languages being spoken at home! Many of BB#1’s friends and classmates are in fact learning their third or fourth language. So much for that columnist’s claim there aren’t many ESL students in FI. The cultural diversity of our area is a big part of the reason we chose to live here, and why we have our children in public schools.
Is the current system perfect? No. Are some students left out? Absolutely. One huge downside to the program in our board (and others) is that there is no Special Education support offered. We chose FI despite this, not because of it. I may be totally naïve in this belief, but as I understand it, this lack is not because TPTB don’t believe students who require Spec Ed support (which, by the way, includes gifted students) can learn in another language. It’s because there is a shortage of FSL-qualified teachers in general, never mind enough French-speaking teachers to provide Spec Ed support in every FI school (the fact that I would likely have a teaching job right now had my French education been better is not lost on me). This is an issue that has recently hit home: BB#1 has tested as gifted, and we now have to decide whether he’ll benefit more from gifted programming, or FI. He can’t have both. This would be a dilemma we’d have to face if he was identified as having a learning disability as well, and yes, I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed. I absolutely believe all students should have the opportunity for an FI education. I absolutely did not choose it for my children to stream them away from “certain students”.
Another challenge we face is that due to the growing popularity of FI, BB#2 will attend grade one at the same school as his brother, but he’ll likely have to change schools for grade two, and again for grade three. While I am not at all happy about this, it may well make FI impossible for other families who simply can’t make having multiple children at different schools work. Unless one parent stays home or has flexible work arrangements, or you have a live-in caregiver like a grandparent or a nanny, having to send your children on different buses to different schools at different times might make FI out of reach (so yes, I can see where the “elitist” argument comes in. But again, I think this is a systematic problem, not a conscious plan to keep anyone out of FI. As I said, perhaps I am naïve.)
Our board also recommends children entering FI be reading at a certain level in English by the end of SK, and I’ve heard rumours those who don’t are actively discouraged from enrolling. However, I have no proof that this is actually occurring; both boys were reading at the expected level by registration, and no one ever tried to talk me out of signing them up. Lucky for them: it wouldn’t have worked. I suppose the idea is, if a child is already struggling, learning in another language might be too much. I’m not certain I agree with that theory—other boards start FI in kindergarten, and therefore the students are not expected to be reading at all (at least, I hope they aren’t!) I personally didn’t start to read until grade one. This was not considered a problem back in the day. And as someone who became an avid reader, majored in English, studied journalism, and worked in publishing, I’d say it didn’t hold me back. Is it possible we’re expecting too much from children in kindergarten? And would having late-entry immersion (something not currently available where I live) ensure that “late” readers get another chance to enroll?
It is true that my children may not end up completely fluent in French. However I suspect they’ll be more fluent than they would be if they only had Core French (my third grader already pokes fun at my horrible accent.) And it is true they may never use it after graduation. Truth be told, I studied a lot of things in school that I haven’t used since. Perhaps that means these things weren’t worth studying in the first place, though I still believe in the value of education for education’s sake. And personally, I would have been better off spending more time on French, and less learning to play the recorder or doing Calculus. It’s also true the boys may be better off learning a language like Mandarin. Maybe, but as far as I know my local public board isn’t offering Mandarin Immersion.
In the meantime, we’ll stick with FI. Having a strong background in French will mean my boys can pick it up again later if they need to, or that they’ll be able to learn additional languages more easily if they choose. And if they don’t, well, I just fail to see any downside to learning another language.