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Myths and realities of French immersion

Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers and
Calgary Board of Education

2010-09-27

(The following text is adapted from the document entitled French Immersion Task Force: Final Report, published in 1999 under the direction of Anthony Wall, for the Calgary Board of Education. Reproduced with the permission of the Calgary Board of Education.)

Introduction

Many of us have preconceived notions about what second-language learning is. These preconceived notions frequently come from our own life experiences. The way in which we learned a second language will usually affect the manner in which we teach it, unless we deconstruct our prior understandings and acquire new ones. We also have preconceived notions arising from what we hear or read about controversial subjects; we may come to believe that something is "normal" because everyone is doing it. All teachers know that each group they work with will be different. Hence all the knowledge we have, whether it is a myth or an idea we read about somewhere, must be put in context and examined from a critical point of view. Being critical means asking questions and understanding that every context (place, time, experience, activity) is unique and different.

The following section presents some myths that often circulate about learning French in late immersion. In 1999, the Calgary Board of Education decided to identify myths about French immersion. The following represents an adapted version of some of the results found in the course of this work.

MYTH FACT
1. (a) French immersion is only for students with excellent academic achievement. It is a myth that immersion is difficult and that only the best have access to it. Researcher Fred Genesee (1987) notes that children who could be at a disadvantage in immersion have shown the same linguistic development in their mother tongue and the same academic achievement as children who are disadvantaged in English-speaking environments. Students who have lower-than-average academic achievement have achieved the same oral proficiency and oral comprehension levels as students who have above-average academic achievement.
(b) French immersion offers enough enrichment for students who need to be challenged. It is important to note that gifted children need as many level-appropriate learning opportunities in late immersion as they do in the regular program. Therefore, simply being in immersion will not guarantee these children enough opportunities for enrichment: they will need challenges whether they are in immersion or not. Such students are not given more work but rather work that presents different cognitive challenges.
(c) Immersion students do not have special needs. This myth follows the logic of 1. (a). Because we believe that only children with excellent academic achievement are in immersion, we forget that some children have specific needs. Children with special needs, such as learning or behaviour problems, will succeed in immersion just as they will in the regular program, assuming that they receive the necessary help, that is, the same help they would get in an English-language program (Yes, You Can Help!, 1996).
(d) Students should get help in French, if possible. Most special needs are not related to the language as such. As soon as the child learns strategies to respond to his or her special needs, these strategies can be transferred to the immersion program, thus to French (Yes, You Can Help!, 1996). It would be better to get help in French, but English resources can be used if necessary. Having special needs should not be a reason for a student to drop out of the French immersion program.
2. Immersion is only for families that are socioeconomically well off. When it first began at the end of the 1960s, immersion became known by word of mouth. Since the end of the '90s, this is no longer the case. In their 1985 study, Holobow, Chartrand and Lambert demonstrated that children from low-income families do as well on tests as students from higher-income families. There were no significant differences in the results. Other factors, such as the distance, cost and information circulating about immersion, could have given access to immersion to one population rather than another. These challenges can be easily resolved by the school boards.
3. Parents who register their children in immersion have to know French so that they can do more to help their children. This myth puts a lot of pressure on the parents. Better communication regarding learning a second language and the curriculum will certainly help to dispel this myth. Parents must understand that French immersion was created for students who have no knowledge of the French language. Schools should inform parents about this on a regular basis (Yes, You Can Help!, 1996).
4. Late immersion students benefit from the same advantages as early immersion students. Erin Gibson, a student and graduate of the early immersion program, describes the difference between the two programs in this way: "When all the high school immersion students went to a French play, everyone understood the story and got the message, but the early immersion student enjoyed more of the jokes" (Yes, You Can Help!, 1997). This reality is more than a question of fluid proficiency. Early immersion students can learn a third or fourth language more easily than other students. The research shows that early and late immersion students have several advantages when they learn a second language, but early immersion students enjoy a greater number of advantages (Archibald et al. 2006).
5. French immersion students are at a disadvantage in English. Several research projects show that immersion students succeed in mathematics, social studies and the sciences. Students in continuous immersion are as successful as those in an English-language program. Immersion students transfer their skills from one language to the other (Yes, You Can Help!, 1997). Certain studies also note that immersion students have greater success than students in the regular program and even than those in English language arts (Turnbull, Lapkin and Hart 2001; Lapkin, Hart and Turnbull 2003).
6. Students with hearing problems should not attend immersion schools. Some research shows that children with hearing problems do as well as other students in immersion. Children who have problems and are transferred to the regular program will lose their confidence and self-esteem. These students must have access to support and resources to help meet their needs (Boissonneault 1999).
7. A French-speaking teacher knows enough about language learning to teach French in immersion. Even though a teacher is proficient in French, he or she may not know how to teach immersion classes. Teachers must have training in second-language acquisition as well as in the pedagogical approaches associated with immersion. Teachers who have learned French as a second language will have teaching methods that are different from those used by teachers whose mother tongue is French. Teachers are still the best model for the students. Their proficiency in French must therefore be quite advanced.
8. The French language is no longer important enough to learn. After English, French is the most frequently learned second or foreign language. It is the official language of more than 33 countries and is the only language other than English to be spoken on five continents. French, like English, is truly an international language. It is one of Canada's and the United Nations' official languages.

Other myths

There is a myth that suggests that students in French immersion will be perfectly bilingual after Grade 12 (Handbook for French Immersion Administrators, 2002). This ideal is very difficult to attain. In fact, few people can attain equibilingualism, which means that they can speak both English and French like native-born speakers (Roy 2008). We often forget to speak of bilingualism as being the ability to use a language effectively, practically and appropriately for communication of a personal, scholastic, social or professional nature (Genesee 2004). Because of this myth, students and teachers often throw in the towel when faced with the enormity of the work involved in trying to turn students into native-born speakers instead of developing a level of bilingualism that enables students to communicate in the two languages. We should rely more on the research that supports the fact that immersion students have multiple skills and sufficiently advanced functional proficiencies in French.

Another myth regarding second languages concerns motivation. The myth is as follows: If students are motivated and really want to learn the language, they will learn it. We have to be wary of this assumption because even the most highly motivated students can face great challenges when learning a language. For example, we have to consider the fact that the oldest students will never attain a native speaker's proficiency, especially with respect to the accent and pronunciation. Motivation may also depend on learning and teaching styles. Each student will be motivated in a different way. The only thing that teachers can do is offer an environment in which the students can achieve success (Lightbown and Spada 2006).