I have come to know French immersion deeply over the years as a student, teacher, and researcher in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Throughout my life, this instructional program has been a source of tremendous enrichment, as it has been for millions of Canadians before me since its beginnings in 1965. Moreover, the benefits of French immersion have been documented extensively in peer-reviewed research, which include strong French proficiency, positive cultural identity, and social closeness to native French speakers. Nevertheless, writers for the Globe and Mail have repeatedly cast French immersion in an uncharitable light. I would like to respond to two relatively recent and especially erroneous articles: French immersion could do with a dose of reality (Gee, 2016) and There’s just one problem with French immersion… well, several, actually (Wente, 2016).
Gee (2016) claims that the goals of French immersion have not been achieved for three central reasons: first, “kids in immersion aren’t really immersed” insofar as they use English outside of school; second, there is a scarcity of French-speaking teachers in many regions of Canada; and third, some students withdraw from the program. However, the above obstacles are not shortcomings of French immersion programs; rather, these issues are symptomatic of the pervasiveness and dominance of English throughout Canadian society. Furthermore, the argument that French immersion creates “the kind of division that a multicultural city that prizes equality wants to avoid” is dubious at best. French immersion student demographics are more linguistically and culturally diverse than ever before, and several studies show newcomers outperforming Canadian-born students in various measures of French language proficiency. If the author is truly interested in seeing more newcomer students in French immersion, perhaps he could advocate for school boards to offer more immersion programs in diverse neighbourhoods of the city and provide resources for such students.
Similarly, Wente (2016) purports that “there’s not the slightest shred of evidence that French immersion has accomplished any of its lofty goals,” disregarding decades of research demonstrating that French immersion students develop strong French comprehension, fluency, and confidence, all while mastering curricular objectives and attaining or surpassing the English proficiency of their non-immersion peers. The author also criticizes immersion programs for excluding students with special learning needs. Wente (2016) might be interested in reading a growing body of literature that examines the successes of at-risk learners in French immersion and the benefits such students receive by adding a second language to their skills. Indeed, I can attest to this with my own experience, having completed immersion with a hearing impairment. Moreover, the author contends that French immersion is ineffective because many students discontinue the program by Grade 8, which is like arguing that piano lessons are ineffective because one hasn’t taken any since Grade 8. Study after study shows that students who persevere in a challenging program like French immersion tend to reap what they sow.
The Globe and Mail recently featured an article by Graham Fraser, Canada’s commissioner of official languages, entitled Of course French immersion is not perfect. Fraser (2016) responds insightfully to various allegations of elitism in French immersion while acknowledging that the programs have limitations. I agree that some of the issues raised are valid and warrant thoughtful discussion. For instance, recruiting French immersion educators is a challenge for many school divisions, and teachers would be the first to tell you that they wish there were more opportunities for students to use French outside of the classroom. Additionally, I believe there is more work to be done in terms of providing resources and support for at-risk learners and students with diverse language backgrounds. In my estimation, however, the Globe and Mail’s polarizing and misguided criticisms of French immersion distract stakeholders from these essential conversations. Respectfully, I would encourage critics to familiarize themselves with the literature and lived experiences of generations of Canadians that illustrate the numerous advantages that immersion provides. Let’s stop indiscriminately criticizing French immersion and start discussing how to make these programs even stronger.
Fraser, G. (2016, June 12). Of course French immersion is not perfect. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/of-course-french-immersion-is-not-perfect/article30394202/
Gee, M. (2016, June 3). French immersion could do with a dose of reality. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/french-immersion-could-do-with-a-dose-of-reality/article30271457/?1479680635053
Wente, M. (2016, June 4). There’s just one problem with French immersion … well, several, actually. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-follies-of-french-immersion/article30259804/