How does a French immersion school work?
March 14, 2011 10:21 AM   Subscribe

What will our experience be like in sending our kids to a French-immersion school?

Our 3 year old triplets will be attending a French immersion school starting in August. They will be starting in preK-3, and assuming all goes well, will attend this school until they graduate from high school.

Neither my husband nor I speak French. At all. Well, except for a handful of words I learned in elementary school. I am assured this is not a problem, but I'm just is this going to work?

What's going to happen on the first day of school, when my kids go into a classroom where they don't know the language? Of course they won't be the only kids there, most of the kids and parents will be in the same boat as us.

I'm just wondering if anyone has any experiences to share about language-immersion schools, or can point me to any resources.

(And I'd ask current parents at this school, only there aren't any. This is the first year this school will be open.)
posted by pyjammy to Education (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Different schools might handle it in different ways, but likely the teachers will speak only or mostly french, but make sure that they explain what they say - "pomme" and pointing to a picture of an apple, for example. Three-year-olds will soak it up no problem.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:30 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

You'll learn as they learn. I spent 13 years in French Immersion, and my mom, who spoke no French at the outset, now knows enough to at least comprehend and participate in basic conversations.

On the first day of school, very few, if any of the kids will know the language at all. So I wouldn't worry! Like L'Estrange Fruit says, the teachers will be very clear about what they're saying. At age 3, it's mostly learning the basics like the ABCs and numbers and simple words for daily use, so your kids will pick it up fairly easily, and so will you.

Some things you can do as they get older: One of the things my mother and I did together that helped both of us learn the language was reading even the most basic books together. I would read the words, and then translate the story to her as best I could. Obviously, it was difficult for her to read over my work once I got to high school, but by that time I had classmates who could also read and, of course, the internet. Make use of the many available resources you have these days, like language podcasts, or clips from shows on youtube. I used to watch terrible French-language farming shows with my father, and it really helped my pronounciation. Best of luck!
posted by meesha at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2011

I went through an immersion program, from age five to sixteen. My parents spoke no French, but this was immersion immersion - I don't remember learning a lick of English grammar till the fifth grade! Meaning that, through songs and storytime in the lower grades and literature and grammar in the upper, I learned French regardless of my home environment. I wouldn't be worried, in fact I'm sure you'll be able to learn along with your kids as they grow up and ask for help with their homework.

I stopped in high school because the requirements for a "French certificate" meant taking maths and sciences in French, and that was too technical for my tastes. Your kids are a long way from that, so in the meantime, I hope you like Frère Jacques!

On preview, meesha's got it covered. I do wonder if your kids will have an advantage no one else will have: each other. I would look into language studies about twins and triplets, I bet their interdependence will prove to be a massive linguistic asset.
posted by Chichibio at 10:52 AM on March 14, 2011

My kids go to a Spanish immersion school in New Orleans. They caught on really quickly. I saw my son follow simple directions (with the teacher pointing) on his first day when I picked him up. By Thanksgiving they understood Spanish pretty well. Most of the other kids are in the same boat, so they are all confused together! The kids won't be able to translate for a while, so they won't be able to tell (in English) you everything that's going on. My daughter was saying that one of the words in a book was, "You know that stuff that comes out of the top of a house?" She couldn't put the Spanish word for " smoke" together with the English one. No problems with that now. The hardest thing is trying to help with math word problems that are in Spanish (3th or 4th grade.) Just stick a google translate link right at the top of your bookmarks! Way down the line from now, you'll want to be sure they know the English words for things in math, Social Studies and Science. They are learning them, but it's good to watch that they aren't missing specialized words here and there. Since you seem to be in New Orleans too, mefi mail me if you need to meet and ask me more! (I have a two year old - I need to hear more about this new Pre-K 3 program!)
posted by artychoke at 10:58 AM on March 14, 2011

I have no experience on the topic other than going to school with kids who took French Immersion the whole way through, and in high school where their classes were mixed in with us uneducated masses, they were great help with our extremely-simple-to-them homework.

But the first thing I thought of when reading was question was that your triplets, who will already have an uncanny ability to communicate with each other, will now be able to do it in a language in which you are unfamiliar. You might want to spend some time learning the language as well with them, just for your own sanity!
posted by cgg at 11:07 AM on March 14, 2011

cgg, I admit, I'm a little worried that they will now be learning a "secret" (well, to me and my husband, anyway) language! I guess that's even more reason for us to learn it too.

artychoke - I will definitely be sending you a message.

thanks chichibio and meesha for sharing your personal experience. fantastic!
posted by pyjammy at 11:13 AM on March 14, 2011

My twin daughters started in Kindergarten and now are in grade five. Neither my wife nor I speak french. One of the most gratifying elements to the experiment is seeing how resilient their little brains are. They can't remember to turn off a light when leaving a room but do know how to conjugate verbs in french.

Don't be daunted by the process, it seems huge for you and I, but to them it's just normal life, they accept it completely in stride.

My only advice is to do everything you can to instill a love of reading, it makes things way easier if they willingly read novels in both languages. It helps comprehension and grammar in both languages.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:37 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Expect your children to have, briefly, weird grammar in English. Don't worry, it's self-correcting.
2. Expect a lot of switching between languages when they know the word in French but not in English.
3. Expect your children to have a lot of trouble when they start to learn English spelling and reading. Don't worry, this will also work itself out, and the school should be bearing this in mind once English is reintroduced. (My sister at first spelled butterfly as putrflai, which is actually pretty good for phonemes.) You can give them access to English books, it won't kill their French, but you should also give them access to French books, French tv (or tv online).
4. Even if there are French students in the class, it won't hurt your children and they won't end up behind.
posted by jeather at 11:41 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The only thing our friends who did this noticed was that the other parents tended to be a bit full of themselves. Their kid enjoyed it and did great (pre-K and then several years).
posted by rr at 11:45 AM on March 14, 2011

My first child went to a French immersion program. We were in New Orleans too - were at ISL. The only reason he's not still there is because we moved out of state.

Our son seemed really, really worn out the first month or so, more so than our subsequent two children when they started kindergarten in non-immersion schools. It was really after Thanksgiving when he really got into the things. Might just be the child, but we were told by the administration and faculty that the language switch can be very taxing on the child at first.

The kids themselves are not all "wow"ed by the fact that they're speaking a foreign language. We noticed this even with our son's classmates. Watch them just shrug when extended family members say, "Oooo! Say something in French!"

It is really, really neat when you notice your child playing by himself, not really paying attention to anyone else, and you notice he is narrating his play in the target language....
posted by chicxulub at 11:55 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did french immersion as a kid. It will help your children if you make an effort to learn some french along with them, but there were definitely lots of students in my school who's parents didn't, and they managed fine.

In my experience I had some trouble with spelling and grammar sometimes because I would get the two languages confused, but I think long term my reading, writing and grammar skills benefited from learning two languages from a young age.
posted by auto-correct at 1:53 PM on March 14, 2011

We moved from NYC to Paris when I was 4, I went to the the neighborhood public school. I learned French by osmosis and was fluent within a couple of months. My mom not only didn't speak French but also had no aptitude for learning languages, my dad was working elsewhere. This was a very different kind of immersion program as I was the only English-speaking child in the school.

I went to French schools in various countries until I was 18 and never had any real problem keeping the two languages separate, although I do remember in my last year of lycee I started mixing up spellings of words that are the same in both languages but are spelled a little differently. Like medecine and medicine. No big deal.

It would be wonderful if all children could have the opportunity to learn a second language at a very young age, this sounds like a great program.
posted by mareli at 2:17 PM on March 14, 2011

You'll be fine. They are little, and they will absorb everything quite easily, though as others have pointed out, the beginning may be a little rough. You'll get some funny English language glitches, but they will sort themselves out as well. Encourage them to read in English at home as well as French, they won't get any English reading at school for the first few years.
posted by defcom1 at 3:22 PM on March 14, 2011

I was in French immersion but I was in a "late start" program--we were in grade 4. We were all starting from square one but our program was accelerated so in three years we would have all the French we would have acquired had we started at age 5. My mom says that I came home dead tired the first few weeks. Even though I was older, I don't remember much from the beginning, other than learning all the little songs. LOTS and LOTS of songs. But it worked and we all learned and almost my whole class went on do graduate from a French immersion high school.

I've got my own three-year-old. He was born here in Brazil so has been exposed to Portuguese his whole life but never really said much. Mom and Dad are both North American so we speak English at home. He's quite verbal in English and already knew most of the preschool words (colors, numbers, animals, etc.) He started in a Portuguese preschool when he was two. No special program, we just dumped him in the neighborhood school. At that age, many of his classmates are still learning the basics so, while it's been a little harder for him socially, he's getting ample opportunity to learn the words he needs. Now he's got his little friends and is getting comfortable operating socially.

For a long time he only responded to his teachers in English. But that was a good sign that he was learning because it meant that he was understanding what they were saying, even if he couldn't respond in kind. This is likely what'll happen with your kids as they start to "get" it. The teachers should be trained to stick with the French even when the kids are answering in English.

One other thing to share as a mom is what a hit to my pride it was when he first started school. I sat in the classroom for the first week and listened as he told his teacher all kinds of things in English. It was hard to watch my bright son not be understood and praised for knowing what he knew. Your kids, while their teacher should understand them, may get a little discouraged at first which may, in turn, discourage you. But it will pass and before you know it they'll be able to embarrass you in TWO languages!
posted by wallaby at 5:03 PM on March 14, 2011

This link is to a blog about bilingualism written by Francois Grosjean, a psycholinguist who was among the first to seriously study bilingualism. It's not exactly what you were looking for in terms of information about a bilingual school experience, but you may find his insights to be helpful going forward. My children were enrolled in bilingual (French/German) schools at one point for a year (their native language is English) and as others have said, the beginning is a bit challenging. But they will catch on very quickly and after about two months, they will maneuver between languages without little difficulty. It helps, I think, if the teachers are familiar with bilingual households (as the teachers in my children's school and yours will be).
posted by bluesky43 at 7:35 PM on March 14, 2011

Out of curiosity, is this new school just French-language or does it follow the French curriculum?

I never went to immersion school but I went to a private day school and learned French from age 8. Definitely a lot of songs and lot of basic vocab. I remember lots of coloring pages and giggling that "poupee" meant doll.
posted by radioamy at 8:07 PM on March 14, 2011

amy - it's the french curriculum. I wish I could tell you more, but we had a meeting last weekend to talk about it, and I didn't really absorb everything. But they would graduate with the same diploma students in France would.
posted by pyjammy at 8:30 PM on March 14, 2011

« Older Ear infection tips/tricks   |   Transfering email folders from webmail to MacMail? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.