What is French Immersion?
French Immersion is a program whereby most or the entire curriculum is taught in French (hence the term Immersion!). The concept has grown from a class of 12 students in 1965 in Quebec to more than 200,000 students today across Canada. It has been designed to allow children who come from non-French speaking families to develop a high level of proficiency in French. The percentage of French spoken in the classroom depends on the school and the teacher. Sometimes French will be introduced gradually in kindergarten while other times the teacher will speak French almost exclusively and use body language, gestures and facial expression to assist with comprehension. Typically, all of the instruction happens in French until Grade 7 except for English classes who often start in Grade 3 as a separate subject.
What are the benefits of French Immersion?
The benefits of learning a new language at a young age are many. Here’s a summary of the main benefits you child might enjoy if enrolled in Early French Immersion:
- heightened mental flexibility and creative thinking skills: research has shown that French Immersion students faired better in several cognitive tests than their English-educated counterparts. Having to process all the information of the curriculum in a foreign languages stimulates neuro-pathways which help the children process information more effectively.
- Learning a new language from a young age is much, much easier than learning later. The brains of 5 and 6 year olds are wired to literally absorb information. You will be amazed at how quickly they pick it up.
- The opportunity to learn about the rich French culture: keep in mind that the French teachers in Canada are typically native of regions as diverse as Québec, New Brunswick, the Prairies, the West Coast, France, Switzerland or Belgium (or many other places). Along the way, your child may be able to learn from people with many different culture backgrounds, which undeniably fosters curiosity and sensitivity to other cultures.
- French Immersion also typically boosts a child’s self-esteem. How often does it happen than your child is better than you at something? Their sense of pride and achievement more than makes up for the challenges.
- French across the globe: over 120 million people in over 50 countries speak French. You would find it useful to know at least some French in places such as Africa, eastern Europe or several countries in Asia for instance.
- English is the dominant language in the business world but your child likely already knows English! French is a very common language in diplomatic circles such as the United Nations, NATO and also at the IOC and the International Red Cross.
Is French Immersion for all children?
All children are accepted in the French Immersion program. Does it mean that it is suitable for all children? That is an ongoing debate. Many children with learning difficulties can still reap the benefits of learning French while for others, the challenges could be too great. It is important to realize that the most important factor is the comprehension. A child who understands what is being said can learn all the concepts of the curriculum even though they might have some difficulty writing or reading. Keep in mind that most schools have learning support available. Make sure that you communicate with your teacher regularly, listen to the advise given by the support team and realize that everything is being done to help every child succeed in the program. In some cases it may be recommended to you that your child switch to an English class. Those recommendations are not made lightly and remember that at such a young age, children typically adapt to change very well. Therefore, moving to an English class, if recommended, should not be seen as a failure but as a way to give your child the best possible opportunity that suits them. Starting French Immersion IS most definitely for all children and most children thrive in the program. Just make sure you monitor your child’s progress and keep his/her best interest in mind.
Will my child learn the same things as peers in the English Program?
Yes, the curriculum followed is exactly the same. The only difference is that it is taught in French.
How good will my child’s French be?
The million dollar question! First, you will likely be amazed at how much your child understands after only a few weeks of classes. Research has shown that reading and comprehension in French Immersion students becomes almost as good as a native speaker. Now how well a child will speak can vary greatly from child to child. Like with every other subject, some students will achieve better results than others. Some students will be able to develop a French accent very close to that of a native speaker and will use rich vocabulary and correct grammar while others will have a lesser level of proficiency but will still be able to easily carry on a conversation. All you can do to help your child develop a better French is to expose them to the language. (See “how can I help my child if I don’t speak English?)
What about the accent? The type of accent that students develop will largely depend on where their teachers are from. Just like in English, people from different regions speak with different accents (Canadian, Southern US, Scottish or Australian for instance). Don’t be concerned about the accent your child is developing. We are talking to our daughters with a French (what people here call “Parisian”) accent. We have noticed that while attending her French Immersion classes, she is starting to pronounce some words with a “ Canadian” accent. Does it matter? It matters in the sense that it shows that the French language is alive and culturally very rich. Learning different accents is fun and it makes learning a language even more interesting.
Will being in French Immersion affect my child’s English language skills?
The author of ‘Yes. You can help! Information and Inspiration for French Immersion Parents’. Pat Brehaut and Judy Gibson have concluded the following:
The results of 30 years of studies undertaken from St. John’s to Victoria are clear and consistent: early total immersion students tend to lag behind English-program students in more technical aspects of the language (e.g., capitalization and spelling) until they have had a year or two of English language arts. However, by grade 5 or 6 (even if this subject has not been introduced until grade 3 or 4), they perform as well as their English-program peers.
Will my child be bilingual?
It is difficult to agree on a definition of bilingualism. Your child will function in the two languages. Andre A. Obadia, from Simon Fraser University, in his 1995 article “Thirty of French Immersion” sums it up:
“In French, their reading and listening skills are close to those of native French speakers. Their productive skills, such as speaking and writing, although not at par with those of native speakers, allow them nonetheless to carry out normal conversations. They are generally self-confident when they speak French”.
What will happen if my child does not continue in Immersion?
Almost all children are able to be successful in French Immersion. Brehaut and Gibson, quoted earlier, express it as follows:
“learning difficulties occur with the same frequency in French immersion as in the regular English program. There are students with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems, below average levels of intelligence, and other barriers to learning who are doing well in immersion – and becoming functionally bilingual!”
The decision to leave depends greatly on the individual child and circumstances.
Depending on the reasons for leaving the program, the child’s feelings may range from a sense of relief to a sense of failure
Dual track school learning assistance teachers and principals are well aware of how to deal with the situation and will be available to counsel both parents and student as well as help make the transfer as smooth as possible.
How will my child communicate with and understand the teacher?
Your child will communicate in English until he/she has the language skills necessary to express himself in French. As in learning his first language, understanding French will come much earlier than being able or willing to speak it.
In the closing address at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers of 1985, James Jones offered this answer:
“It is frequently claimed that the use of English by teachers in the French part of the program should be avoided at all costs… Surely need should dictate the practice. Immersion kindergarten teachers usually begin using some English and gradually phase out its use. However, in the case of classroom crises such as a sick or injured child the need for communication overrides the all French dictum. A very difficult concept involving values in social studies, for example, could be clarified with an English word or two.”
Will my child be learning the same things as in an English class?
Yes, the children follow the same curriculum as English classes. The only difference is that the instruction takes place in French. All subjects are identical otherwise.
Is French Immersion only for “bright” children?
All schools have bilingual learning assistance teachers to support special needs. (Ranging from difficulty in math to gifted).
Research indicates that the only children who are very poor candidates for French Immersion Programs are those with poor auditory discrimination (being unable to distinguish between similar sounding letters and words) or with poor auditory memory (being unable to remember what he/she has heard). Program placement will not determine a child’s success. A child will do as well or as poorly in French Immersion as he/she would do in an English program. Parents need to support their children and have a positive attitude towards the program.
I don’t speak French. Will this be a problem? How will I help with homework?
A problem. No. A frustration. Yes. Your child’s teacher can give you ideas on how you can help your child with his homework. Also, see publications available at your child’s school for more ideas and suggestions. Programs us as the Immersion Help Program (www.immersionhelp.ca) would provide you with activities you could do with your child.
How will I know how my child is doing?
Through formal (report cards) and informal (phone calls and visits) communications with the teacher.
How will I communicate with my child’s teacher?
All French Immersion teachers speak English.
Should I read with my child in English?
Yes. The shared experience of reading with your child is particularly valuable in shaping an interest in reading.
Some children, on their own, do learn to read in English. All children certainly begin to do so during the first term of Grade 3.
Can I transfer my child into a French Immersion program at the beginning of Grade 1?
Entry in the French Immersion program is usually possible in Kindergarten and Grade 1 but you should of course check with your school.
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