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Why do immigrants want to learn French?

Sylvie Roy and Albert Galiev
University of Calgary
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers


This is a summary of an article that appeared in the Immersion Journal (PDF Version Approx. 5.37 MB) (Help on File Formats) (www) English Hyperlink Notice (in bilingual format) (Volume 31, No. 3, Fall 2009), published by the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers.

Immigrants and official bilingualism

While immigration has changed Canadian demographics, the discourse on official bilingualism focuses primarily on promoting bilingualism to Anglophones and Francophones (native speakers)—immigrants Go to note 1 are often missing from the debate. The Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013 highlights the federal government's support for access to education in both official languages for all Canadians. In practice, however, little attention has been paid to immigrants in Anglophone provinces who would like to learn English and French at the same time Go to note 2.

Yet various surveys attest to the success of bilingualism. Parkin and Turcotte (2004) reported that immigrants are often more likely than Anglophones to support Canadian bilingualism and to see it as an integral part of the Canadian identity. Their study gathered the following views: "immigrants would like to learn French" (73% of immigrants and 61% of Anglophones surveyed agree); "living in a country with two official languages defines what it means to be Canadian" (68% of immigrants and 63% of Anglophones agree); and "learning French is a good way for Canadians to keep the country unified" (73% of immigrants and 64% of Anglophones agree). In our ethnographic research (Roy and Galiev, submitted), we also interviewed many immigrant and Anglophone parents who send their children to immersion because "This country has two languages and we need to speak both" (interview with a student). Immigrants therefore recognize the value of bilingualism despite the lack of clear or explicit language policies concerning them.

Why do immigrants feel that immersion is not for them?

Immigrants understand that knowing many languages is key to entering the job market. They often have an extensive background in languages, and education is important to most of them. When they arrived in Canada, they opted for Canadian bilingualism. However, many immigrant parents feel that French immersion is not for their children. They have been told by some school authorities or individuals that they should learn English first. Moreover, since some immigrant parents had a hard time finding a job because they did not speak English, they worry about putting their children in immersion. Here is what one principal had to say:

He is Chinese [he works as a technician at that school] and has his son in Grade 1 French immersion, and he is not entirely sure it is the right idea…He is projecting some of his own struggles perhaps onto his son, because when he says he's worried about his son, I say, "Is your son having a hard time at school?" "No." "Is your son complaining?" "No." "Does the teacher say he is doing well at school?" "Yes." So, I think his concern is more his own, rather than because he sees his son in trouble.

Why is bilingualism important to immigrants?

Immigrants believe that bilingualism is important to Canada. For example, a student from Pakistan said, "I consider myself a little bit special…I speak both [English and French] so it is a little bit special for me." A teacher added the following:

[Translation] Many of these students in late and continued immersion are children of first- or second-generation immigrants to Canada. Therefore, French may be their second, third or even fourth language…They are more motivated to learn other languages; they are more tolerant towards other languages and cultures. Now that they are settled here, in Canada, they really want to live the dream of belonging to a bilingual country. So, they would very much like to see their children learn both languages.

Interestingly, immigrant students often view bilingualism as the ability to speak English and French. In fact, many of them are already bilingual since they speak their mother tongue and one of the official languages. Their notion of bilingualism stems from what they are taught about Canada's history, which presents bilingualism as the knowledge of both official languages.

Conclusion and recommendations

Immigrants who send their children to French immersion believe in a bilingual Canada. While most language policies promote bilingualism, they often forget the role of immigrants in this political and official discourse.

In order to begin the dialogue on needed changes, we would like to make some recommendations:

  1. It is important to promote French immersion to immigrants and newcomers in order to increase the number of people who speak both official languages, and to focus on their mother tongue at home or in their community.
  2. It is important to understand that young people can learn English and French at the same time. They already have many strategies for learning a mother tongue or second language and can learn other languages as well, as long as they receive guidance in this learning process.
  3. If the number of allophone students in French immersion increases, we will need to provide teachers with resources and training. In practice, these students will retain their mother tongue and will learn English and even French, if possible. Why not offer them educational support to help them to learn English and French and to participate in Canadian society now and in the future?


Parkin, A. and Turcotte, A. (2004). Bilingualism: Part of our Past or Part of our Future? The CRIC Papers #13, Centre for Research and Information on Canada, Canadian Unity Council, Ottawa, Canada.

Roy, S. &. Galiev, A (submitted). Discourses on Bilingualism in the Canadian French Immersion Program. The Canadian Modern Language Review.


Return to note 1 We use the term broadly to include people who have just arrived in Canada and those who have been here for some time.

Return to note 2 Drawing on personal experience, Albert Galiev mentions that immigrants receive government funding for English courses (ESL) but none for French in Alberta.