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Can immigrants be successful learning French and English in immersion?

Callie Mady, Associate Professor at Nipissing University
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers (www) English Hyperlink Notice


“Can immigrants be successful learning French and English in immersion?” is a question of interest to parents, teachers and administrators. This issue is becoming more pressing as the number and diversity of immigrants to Canada continue to increase. This article explores the success of immigrants in Grade 6 early immersion as it pertains to their English and French achievement, compared to that of their Canadian peers, both Anglophone and multilingual. In addition, I examine factors that influence the results.

In Canadian regions where English is the main language of education and of the community (provinces other than Quebec and New Brunswick), importance is placed on having immigrants acquire English as a means to participate fully in life in the community. Similarly, stakeholders in education want immigrants new to the system to meet with success. At times, educators’ provision of support for immigrants to acquire English has limited this new population’s access to intensive French opportunities.

In general, immigrants whose dominant language(s) is not English or French are supportive of official language bilingualism. In fact, Parkin and Turcotte (2003) found that they were more supportive of English-French bilingualism than Canadian-born questionnaire respondents. In interviews with adult immigrants, I discovered that the immigrant participants had envisioned an officially bilingual Canada prior to their coming. Upon arrival, these adult immigrants searched for opportunities to learn French despite locating in an English-speaking region. Many, however, were often not aware of immersion opportunities for their children. Those who were aware attempted to register their children in French immersion but were met, at minimum, with questions and, at times, with refusal (Mady, 2012).

Does the importance of English acquisition need to override immigrants’ desires for their children to be part of the French immersion program? I tested Grade 6 early French immersion students’ English and French in hopes of starting to answer this question. I then compared the results of Canadian-born Anglophones, Canadian-born multilinguals (children of immigrants) and multilingual immigrants. I used the Diplôme d’études en langue française (DELF) A2 junior test (Centre international d’études pédagogiques, 2012) to examine French proficiency. With the help of a research team, I tested 289 students’ French listening, reading and writing skills. A subgroup completed the speaking test. I used the WIDA Model (Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 2011) to explore English achievement. Although the model provides listening and speaking evaluations, the English examination was limited to the reading and writing components.

Table 1 shows the average percentage scores for each of the groups. The consistent trend for all test components in English and French is for the multilingual immigrant group to perform the best, followed by the Canadian-born multilinguals and then the Canadian-born Anglophones.

Table 1. Average percentage on French and English tests according to group


Canadian-born Anglophones Canadian-born multilinguals Immigrant multilinguals
French Listening




French Speaking




French Reading




French Writing




English Reading




English Writing




Such results are consistent with research from a Canadian core French context (Mady, 2013b). Research from the same context suggests that the members of the immigrant group were more motivated to learn French and this motivation enhanced their learning (Mady, 2010). Is this also the case in immersion? The same students who completed the tests also completed a questionnaire. The questionnaire explored different kinds of motivation: integrative motivation (e.g., inspired by connections to the Francophone communities), instrumental motivation (e.g., travel or marks), the value of learning French and the students’ plans for their French learning. Table 2 presents the average percentage for the questionnaire findings that addressed such motivations.

Table 2. Average percentages for questionnaire findings on motivations


Canadian-born Anglophones

Canadian-born multilinguals

Immigrant multilinguals

Learning French makes me more Canadian. 63 17 20
French is an important language in Canada. 3 3 0
I want to travel to a French-speaking place. 20 13 10
I would like to have French-Canadian friends. 29 38 33
French will give me an advantage finding a job. 0 0 0
Learning French will help me get good marks. 21 10 0
Learning French will help me understand French people and their way of life. 24 23 0
Learning French will make it easier to meet French people. 7 7 10
French is a language worth learning. 10 0 0
I plan to be able to use French as well as my teacher. 10 0 10
I want my French skills to be good enough to write essays in high school. 3 0 0
I want my French skills to be good enough that I could work in a store where French is spoken. 10 17 10

In contrast to respondents in other research comparing the same communities (Mady, 2013a) in core French at the same level, in general, these Grade 6 French immersion students were not motivated by the factors examined. Almost none of the students indicated that French was important in Canada or that knowledge of French would help them find a job. In most cases, only a small minority were motivated integratively (by wanting relationships with Francophones) or instrumentally (by a desire to travel or get good marks). Not surprisingly, they did not have lofty plans to continue to develop their French. Only one group replied positively in the majority for one item, and that was the Canadian-born group, who indicated that French made them more Canadian. Unlike respondents in other research, members of the immigrant group were not the most positive. In fact, they were more agreeable on only one item.

Where does that leave us? This study offers evidence that immigrants can learn English and French as well as their peers in an early French immersion context. Further examination would be required to form a solid foundation on which educators and parents can make their decisions. The questionnaire, however, did not explain the immigrant group’s higher achievement. Why did the immigrant group perform better? That question remains unanswered.


Mady, C. (2010). Motivation to study core French: Comparing recent immigrants and Canadian-born secondary school students. Canadian Journal of Education, 33 (3), 564-587.

Mady, C. (2012). Voices of immigrant adults: Perspectives and experiences with French as a second official language in “English-dominant” Canada. Intercultural Promenades: Journal of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies, 1(1), 35-51.

Mady, C. (2013a). Adding languages, adding benefits: Immigrant students’ attitudes toward and performance in FSOL programs in Canada. In K. Arnett & C. Mady (Eds.), Minority populations in second language education: Broadening the lens from Canada (pp. 3–21). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Mady, C. (2013b). Immigrant status as an influential factor in additional language learning: A comparison of French language achievement of Canadian-born monolinguals, bilinguals and bilingual immigrants. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5(1), 12–20.

Parkin, A., & Turcotte, A. (2003, May). Public support for bilingualism in Canada. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism: 40 Years Later, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.