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“Diversity is our strength”—a new reality for immersion in British Columbia

Édith Guay
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers

After 30 years of immersion in British Columbia, we are facing a new reality, one that forces us to re‑examine our practices in this field: the appearance of allophone students in our immersion program. This new reality reflects and results from the tremendous success of immersion programming provincially and nationally.

In our school, located in North Surrey in the suburbs of Vancouver, we see a growing trend on the part of newcomers, who are registering for our immersion program. Half of our kindergarten and Grade 1 immersion students are allophones. Therefore, we must re‑examine our practices in order to better meet the needs of our new student body.

Our allophone families are eager to embrace their new Canadian identity, which, for them, includes our two official languages. Much to our surprise, they arrive already informed about our programs and are proud to be able to offer their children this linguistic richness.

In the classroom, the strengths of our immersion program come to the fore, helping our young allophones integrate into the program. Strategies in second language teaching benefit each of our students. Oral communication is always accompanied by visual aids to reassure students in their new learning. A focus on the oral aspect of language, especially the use of specific repetition and communication techniques, encourages the development of oral skills in each child. Moreover, we find that our allophone students become comfortable with oral communication more quickly than do some of our other students. French is the language they use to communicate in the classroom.

A new challenge is emerging with regard to our pedagogical resources, which are often North American, produced in Quebec. The cultural references that so aptly link our children's experiences to the vocabulary taught, and that also support the learning of French in the classroom, are very different for students arriving from India, the Philippines or Korea. Therefore, when introducing new vocabulary, we must take greater care in teaching the elements of Canadian culture that are brand new for them.

Orthopedagogical support involves three components: classroom support to help develop our students' oral and written language skills; small group work to reinforce phonetics and the relationship between symbols and sounds; use of technology (iPad) to enhance the oral experience and stimulate both creativity and oral communication. Our challenge lies in the inability to use standardized tests to identify learning disabilities or other problems, so that learning disabilities are often diagnosed at a much later age.

Communicating with the parents of our allophone students is often slightly more challenging. The first meetings with kindergarten students and their parents are often a little less informative. Getting to know the child well is usually difficult. At our school, we now ask our multicultural workers to help us during these first meetings, which are so crucial to the child's academic success.

It is important to us that each family continue to maintain its own cultural identity. We encourage parents to keep talking, reading and writing in their native language at home with their children, while discussing with them how to assimilate English just as quickly.

Our school is a place where each family feels valued and respected. That's why we celebrate every important cultural holiday related to our cultural diversity. We start the year with a multicultural week during which each culture is featured. Our school's motto is "Diversity is our strength." We are very proud of this richness in both our immersion program and our Anglophone program.

Édith Guay is the principal of Simon Cunningham School, which is located in a disadvantaged area of Surrey. Of its 560 students, 60% speak a language other than English or French at home.