Saturday, March 05, 2016

French immersion is not for everyone

An interesting conundrum is arising in Canadian education circles. French immersion teaching is becoming so popular in some areas that school boards are finding it difficult to keep the English stream going.
Canada-wide, French immersion (where all lessons are taught in French, rather than French being just one class among many) has increased by around 40% over the last decade. Even in traditional hold-outs against French influence like British Columbia and Alberta, enrollment in French immersion has grown by 18% and 12% respectively over the last five years.
French immersion is being increasingly seen as the mark of a good education. Which all sounds well and good, but it is also being seen as a way of selectively streaming brighter and high-achieving kids with others of their ilk, to the extent that the traditional English stream in some areas is becoming regarded as exclusively for low-achievers and special needs kids. The trend also carries with it its own momentum, so that parents feel increasing pressure to have their kids in the "good" stream, whether or not it actually is good for their particular child, and there is an increasing stigma associated with having a child in the English stream.
In Halton District - a leafy, affluent commuter town outside Toronto, an area full of well-heeled, well-educated, over-achieving young parents with school-age kids - this phenomenon is approaching crisis proportions. In many Halton schools, the French immersion enrollment vastly outnumbers those in the regular English program. In Grade 1, some schools are seeing French-English ratios like 53-4, 31-2, 60-8, etc. This is often necessitating split or joint classes of different grades for Engliosh program kids (which has its own set of pros and cons), or even bussing them to other schools (which has very few pros). Some schools are trying to stem the tide by offering core French classes starting in Grade 1 rather than Grade 4 (I confess I have never understood why the Ontario curriculum waits until Grade 4 to start basic French), but really these are desperate measures, not cogent solutions.
I'm kind of glad our university-age daughter is past this stage. We did consider French immersion for her briefly, back in the day, but it was our daughter herself (a pretty high-achiever, with a facility for languages) who balked at the idea. She was worried, as were we, that she might have problems keeping up in other subjects, or that what she learned in other subjects might be dumbed down in some way. At the ripe old age of 20, she has no regrets about not going down the French immersion route. It does worry me, though, that education is subject to these kinds of fashion trends.

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