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French immersion: Perspectives of immigrant families

Gordon Campbell
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers


French immersion began in 1965 in St. Lambert, Quebec, to meet the needs of Anglophone families who wanted bilingualism for their children. Since then, Canada has changed a great deal. Immigrants to Canada come from all corners of the world. Many schools have more children born outside the country than children born in Canada. Recognizing the importance of respecting and listening to my school’s immigrant community, I decided to talk with several families to get their views on immersion.

When they arrive in Canada, immigrant families should be informed of the educational options available to them, and immersion education should be presented as a truly feasible and beneficial option for their children. Myths must be dispelled so that families can recognize that anyone can succeed in immersion. Immersion educators must connect with the immigrant community to ensure that their schools are seen as welcoming environments that value multicultural and inclusive education from a global perspective.

At the school where I teach, we try to be an inclusive community. For example, instead of presenting a traditional Christmas concert, we hold evenings on themes such as the guignolée (food drive) or the réveillon (a festive meal on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve), Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, Bollywood and the Caribbean. These themes reflect the diversity of our school’s communities. One parent from Iran told me that these themed evenings made him feel included in the school. He said that he was learning a great deal about other customs and that he felt like an equal member of the community because everyone was learning with him. If we were to present a traditional Christmas concert, he would feel excluded because he is not part of the Christian majority. Given Canada’s changing socio-political climate, it is important to have these discussions at school and to integrate these principles into our current practices.

All the parents I spoke with recognize that Canada is a bilingual country and believe that it is important for their children to learn both official languages. All these families speak another language at home—Mandarin, Russian, Yoruba, Bengali and Vietnamese. Each family values the learning of several languages. One parent wrote as follows:

[Translation] Although it sounds trite, the world has become a global village. Advances in technology, telecommunications and transportation have blurred international boundaries. People who speak many languages and who are well educated are strategically equipped to benefit from these global trends. We want to give our children this advantage. We want them to be not only Canadian citizens, but also global citizens.

The notion of global citizenship is very important to each family. Families want to provide their children with as many opportunities as possible, not only to increase their future employment prospects, but also to give them the opportunity to communicate with a wider range of people. [Translation] "The ability to communicate in French would provide our son with more opportunities to study, to be entertained and to have fun in French," said one parent. Another wrote, [Translation] "As young as they are, our children understand that by speaking two international languages, they can communicate with a greater number of people, and that, when two people are equally qualified for a job, the bilingual person has the advantage."

The parents also talked about the challenges they faced learning English on arriving in Canada. One wrote the following:

[Translation] It’s hard to learn another language as an adult. It’s good to learn English and French when you’re young. It’s easier to learn a second language during childhood because it’s less demanding. Pronunciation is easier to learn when you’re young and so difficult when you’re an adult.

Let us take the case of a child with major language and learning difficulties. The parents will be much more in favour of immersion if the school is able to meet the child’s needs and support the child’s learning. The reinforcement that results when concepts are taught in both English and French helps children increase their ability to understand and improve their academic performance. Immersion students are constantly trying to understand the meaning of the messages they receive, a process that promotes brain development. This additional mental exercise and the double dose of language teaching help children improve their learning, a result that would probably not be achieved in a unilingual program.

Immersion programs must show that they are flexible and that they meet the needs of both higher-ability and lower-ability students. One parent said, [Translation] "In addition to the obvious benefits of immersion, the encouragement and attention that children will get are paramount in the parents’ decision to choose immersion." Another parent wrote, [Translation] "Children are much more flexible and resilient than we adults are, believe me! If, as parents, we show that we are committed to helping them succeed in learning French, we believe that the children will succeed."

The parents of a Russian family researched the immersion program before arriving in Canada. They knew that this is what they wanted as a form of education for their children. One of the children started kindergarten knowing just a few words in English and, like the other children, did not speak French. The parent explained as follows:

[Translation] My daughter was like all the other students when she started kindergarten. No one could understand the teacher. She was at the same level as everyone in her class. In an English school, she would have immediately felt apart from the others. I knew that she would learn English, but we were able to give her the gift of learning both of Canada’s official languages.

A kindergarten immersion class engages all the students’ senses. Teachers find various ways to make the message understandable. Often, a child repeats what the teacher says in English, thus reinforcing the message. Now in Grade 5, this girl speaks English like her peers and is very proficient in French. This does not mean that immigrant children will never need support in English; however, it is clear that the immersion program can make learning English and French easier.

Research on bilingualism and immersion programs supports the idea that two languages can be learned simultaneously, without too much confusion.

All the parents interviewed recommend immersion to others. Often, they are the ones who mention it to families arriving in Canada and who influence their decision to choose immersion for their children. These parents can dispel the myth that children must have strong English language skills to be enrolled in immersion. Through their own experience, these parents show that immersion can be suitable for all children. As educators, we too must show that immersion works for all children and that all children must be welcomed into the program.