August 21, 2003

French Immersion

I know I need to respond to the comments on the post below and I said I would get the important and somewhat complicated third post in my discussion of language policy up today. It may still happen, maybe. My boss - who really is a nice guy in most respects - has only today found me a copy of the outline for our research grant application, and informed me at the same time that I only have until Tuesday to write the whole thing up because he promised weeks ago we were going to submit it by the end of the month. No pressure.

Folks, if you have people working for you, and you work in a business with deadlines, I implore you to keep your people abreast of their work schedules and not inform them at the last minute when work must be ready.

It looks like part 3 will be up, in all likelihood, Friday instead of today. In the meantime, I want to discuss just one of the comments to part 2 because it has some bearing on language policy in general. Sylvia Li asks if I have "statistics, as well as anecdotal evidence, for saying that French immersion schools are a failure? If so, you'd think there'd be a bunch of very annoyed Anglophone parents in Western Canada."

For lack of university access, I can't claim to have numbers or citations at the tip of my fingers. There are a number of people in Canadian education research who are critical of French immersion. Gilles Bibeau is the most notorious, but I can't recommend him because he believes several things that I think are not merely wrong but also stupid and harmful. Roy Lyster is much more sympathetic to the goals of French immersion and is also cited as someone quite critical of the programme.

One thing you will not find any well-informed advocate of French immersion saying is that children graduate from school with the level of French necessary to genuinely live in the language. They usually graduate with better French than children coming from Core French programmes (manditory French classes taught in ordinary English-language schools), but they are not at all comparable to native speakers. One paper I remember reading on the subject claimed that a minority of Ontario French immersion graduates who went on to study French at bilingual universities (Laurentian, U of Ottawa, and York) did ultimately develop real fluency. Most did not. Other studies show that children in immersion can develop fairly good passive comprehension skills in French, but that fluent speech and writing rarely develop.

This, to me, constitutes a failure. Now, I should make clear what I am not saying. Children in French immersion - including early immersion and 100% French programmes - do not appear to measurably suffer from the experience. The overwhelming majority feel that it was a positive experience and intend to send their children to French immersion. There is no apparent failure to meet other educational goals. English abilities are as high - and according to some higher - in children graduating from French immersion as in children coming from ordinary English schools. Putting your child in French immersion does not harm them in any way that regular schools won't.

Furthermore, immersion programmes were quite successful in Quebec before they started disappearing in the aftermath of Bill 101. Nowadays, English-language children often graduate from Quebec's ordinary English schools with excellent French, and demand for French immersion in Quebec has dropped because parents identify more and more with their schools as symbols of their Anglo-Quebecois identity. I would not be surprised to discover that French immersion remains quite successful in the Ottawa Valley, northern Ontario and New Brunswick because it is in those areas that a child is most likely to be exposed to French in their daily life.

French immersion is a failure because the majority of 18 year olds can acquire genuinely fluent French by getting average grades in Honours French in high school and then spending a year in Chicoutimi. To send children to schools where 75% to 100% of the time is spent in French classes for as much as 12 years and still not produce fully functional French speakers does not incline me to think highly of the efficacity of French immersion programmes in Western Canada.

Now, you may be asking yourselves, how can it be that a child spends all that time in French languages classes, pass, still not be able to communicate in French and have learned just as much as ordinary students? Since I already have a reputation as something of a radical on education policy, let me suggest that it is because most kids don't learn very much in school anyway. But that is a different issue.

However, these problems in Canadian French immersion highlight the practical difficulties that follow from Canada's choice of the personality principle - as Denise R?aume and Alan Patten call it - instead of more territorial principles as the basis for language policy. It is nearly impossible for a Canadian who did not learn French at home to acquire real fluency without living - at least for a while - in a community where French is widely spoken. This, not the government of Quebec and not anti-French sentiment in the west, is the major barrier to Trudeau's vision of coast-to-coast bilingualism.

The problem can, to some degree, be remedied by placing English-speaking children not in French immersion schools filled with other English-speaking children but in native French schools. Unfortunately, this very solution is categorically forbidden by the constitution of Canada in every province except Quebec. Only children with a largely hereditary right to study in French may do so in regular French schools outside of Quebec. The alternative is to promote physical mobility and try to construct large francophone communities with limited English skills across Canada which can serve as real-life immersion environments for children. That option seems unlikely.

Why, then, isn't French immersion a scandal instead of being incredibly popular? Well, first, neither the parents nor the students are usually readily able to judge the French skills taught in immersion. They may think they have quite good French, but they are comparing themselves to their friends from English schools. Since children's overall educational outcomes are not harmed, immersion schools are not producing swarms of English-illiiterate graduates who are flunking out of university.

Second, it is a scandal, but only among language education scholars.

But, I think the most important factor is that many people in Canada so strongly identify their nation with a policy of state bilingualism that patriotism keeps the immersion programmes popular. Parents believe that they are doing the right thing, not only for their children but for their country, by sending them to French immersion schools. Attitudes towards francophones and towards official bilingualism are very positive among French immersion students and their parents.

The programme serves an important political purpose. In a nation with very little militarism, French immersion substitutes for sending your young ones off into military service as a demonstration of nationalist pride.

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Posted 2003/08/21 19:30 (Thu) | TrackBack