Letter to the Editor – French immersion, an important step towards language mastery

I read with interest Aaron Hutchins’ article in Maclean’s on French immersion, and beyond the exaggerated headline I found a solid critique, not of immersion, but of a chronically underfunded school system.

He begins with a graphic illustration: parents and relatives being forced to help each other by staying up all night to get a place for their child in immersion, as if education were distributed like Rolling Stones tickets. He then makes an important mistake: French-English bilingualism is NOT on the decline. It remains steady, despite Canada welcoming 250,000 newcomers every year.

Mr. Hutchins goes on to describe a criticism that is as old as immersion itself: that the system is elitist. Leave aside the question of whether any attempt to instill excellence in education is, by definition, elitist. The fact remains that every time a child in immersion shows any kind of learning difficulty, whether related to adapting to the language of instruction or not, the parents are pressured to take their child out of immersion. Then, immersion is accused of elitism. Not surprisingly, if you remove every child who is having problems from a class, immersion or non-immersion, it will become a class of high performers.

As the article notes, immigrant children are often discouraged from entering immersion, even though those who have done so have succeeded.The Vancouver Sun recently found that children for whom French is a third language have a greater degree of success than children learning French as a second language.

In the 1980s, academics predicted that, if the rate of growth in immersion continued, there would be a million children in immersion by the year 2000. Instead, with the budget cuts of the mid-1990s, enrolment levelled off at about 300,000, where it remains. The pressure from parents results in absurdities like first come, first serve place allocation, or lotteries. Imagine if that were how advanced mathematics programs were allocated!

Immersion is not perfect. One of the challenges that immersion faces is that parents—along with school administrators, school boards and journalists—often have an unrealistic set of expectations of what any second-language primary and secondary program can achieve. These programs are an important step towards language mastery, but not the final step, any more than intensive maths and science programs in high school produce mathematicians and scientists.

That being said, thousands of immersion graduates have gone on to build on and use the language skills that they acquired and have become effectively bilingual. Immersion graduates want their children to enter immersion. These are indications of significant success.

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

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