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Immersion: an iceberg worth revisiting

Lucille Mandin, Ph.D
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers


Every year, thousands of young people from various backgrounds graduate from high school in immersion programs. What do they have in common? They are bilingual in a bilingual country and are proud of it!

I have been reflecting on French-language education in Canada. We must remember who we are, what we are trying to accomplish and why we want to promote the French language in our bilingual country. It is therefore time to revisit the beliefs that fuel all of our pedagogical actions.

I have taken the metaphor of the iceberg as inspiration. Why the iceberg? Because it is both visible and invisible. First, just as an iceberg takes a long time to form, education is a long process. Learning a language is also a long, continuous and complex process. The metaphor is relevant in another sense, as well: the results of a good education are largely invisible. The most important dimensions of education, like those of an iceberg, are neither visible nor measurable.

The invisible aspects of immersion education

What is invisible in the case of French immersion students? According to Runte (1996), the invisible aspects are as follows: the nation benefits from French immersion, as do society and the economy. As the nation's citizens learn French, they make other changes in the social and economic fabric, so that it is difficult to identify and link the causes and effects of immersion education. The challenge: how can we measure these elements?

And what about the invisible abilities of bilingual students? We recognize their ability to tolerate ambiguity, to listen carefully, to infer meaning from nonverbal cues and to focus. We also recognize their ability to move beyond translation, to pick out—automatically—the key words of a text or conversation and thus understand as if by magic, as de Courcy (2003) reminds us: French takes over [their] mind.

The visible/audible aspects of immersion education

The quality of language

We know that the visible part of the iceberg sometimes draws too much attention. This part consists of fossilized errors in spelling, grammar, syntax, agreement, accents and the pronunciation of the letters r and l. More and more, these errors are becoming the focus of our conversations. While we need to make students aware of the process involved in learning a language, the final product defines the success of our efforts. We need to be increasingly concerned about the quality of immersion students' written and spoken language. Bourgault (1996, p. 147) reminds us of the importance of focusing on quality: [Translation] "The joy of language is being able to speak it effortlessly. However, when we refuse from the very beginning to make the effort to learn a language, we are doomed to speak it with effort throughout our life." Learning to pronounce the sounds r and ou in French is not impossible. Knowing when and how to intervene in the area of language requires a certain tact that cannot be learned in books. Teachers must strive to create an atmosphere of trust that will empower students to direct their own learning.

Ease with social language

To help students build a bilingual identity, we need to increase the contexts in which they are expected to produce authentic speech. Therefore, we must put greater focus on social language, which will increase students' opportunities to connect not only with their peers but also with French speakers throughout Canada and abroad.

To increase the chances for success for all students, the school must also consider their cultural context. Students come from various cultures, bringing with them the richness of their diverse ways of living and thinking, their beliefs, their history, their geography and their art. Thus, students in a French immersion class and school are exposed to a particular culture—one in which only they can participate. They are intimately and actively involved in creating the bilingual community they belong to. In the school context, their investment in their bilingual education makes them part of the classroom culture, first of all, and then of the culture of the school they attend.

Mingled with these cultures is the Francophone culture. To fully learn a second language, it is vital to learn about the culture connected to that language. Therefore, students should be exposed not only to academic experiences, but also to native speakers in various contexts—exchange trips, correspondence, Francophone media, theatre, French performances, poetry, children's literature, Francophone neighbourhoods, etc.

Students take part in all these experiences in order to become bilingual citizens capable of actively participating in language development in Canada. They also take part in these experiences in order to become more aware of their responsibility to reinvest themselves in the world so they can share with others—and remind them of—the great privilege of learning another language.

We need to provide opportunities for people to cooperate and to establish ongoing relationships. Doing so will lead to changed attitudes and mentalities. We need to do everything we can to ensure that our students are bilingual when they graduate. We are working for a cause, but it is results that bring change.


It is worth being passionately committed to immersion programs that give our students the opportunity to integrate into the Francophone community and its diversity, and to contribute—as bilingual citizens—to developing the French language space. I no longer look at the visible and invisible parts of the iceberg the same way.


Bourgault, P. (1996). La culture : Écrits polémiques (Vol. 2). Paris, France : Lanctôt.

De Courcy, M. (2003). French takes over your mind: Private speech and making sense in immersion programs. Journal of Educational Thought, 37(3), 349-367.

Runte, R. (1996). Surviving the Perils of Politics: The Language Classroom of the Next Century. Mosaic, 3(2), 2-7.