A few questions about French immersion schooling in Canada.
April 13, 2015 11:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to decide whether or not to put my daughter into French immersion. I have two main questions: Can she catch up if I enroll her in grade 1 instead of in primary/kindergarten? And is it important enough that I should overcome all obstacles to do it?

I think it would be nice for my daughter to go into French immersion. It's a very important part of Canadian culture, it's great knowing multiple languages, it might make it easier for her to learn more languages as she gets older, and it might eventually give her more opportunities in work and travel. I can't see any down side. But putting her into a French immersion school for this coming school year is a bit of a problem. There is a good, non-immersion school very nearby that her current daycare will take her to and from and handle the before and after school care. If I enroll her in the French immersion school further away, I will need to either a) accept a much longer and more stressful bus commute with her on my way to and from school and my job meaning earlier evening bedtimes and earlier mornings thus less time together as a family, or b) buy a second car and start driving her which completely freaks me out as I only got my license a week ago. That will mean the extra expense of said second car as well as downtown parking. And it will be even more stressful and probably not save much, if any, commuting time. To complicate matters I have a mental illness that doesn't abide stress well. And my husband can't help with any of the commuting since he leaves for work too early and gets home too late (shift work, non-negotiable).

So taking all that into consideration, part of me wonders - does it really matter whether or not she goes into French immersion? But maybe it does. Maybe these French immersion parents know something I don't. Are French immersion kids smarter? Do they get into less trouble? Are quantifiably more successful in life? Is this part of the price of admission to the upper middle class, which we are in financially but not culturally a part of (my husband and I both grew up poor)? Are French immersion schools less diverse? More diverse? What else am I not thinking of?

Instead, I could wait until we move across the country, where we could potentially live closer to a French immersion school and have a better commuting situation and more family support and place her in French for grade 1. But will she realistically be able to catch up? Have you done this? Do you know anyone who has?

This is an all-over-the-place question and I'm sorry for that. This is really causing me a lot of anxiety. If you can answer any of the many questions above or point me to some resources I would be greatful.
posted by kitcat to Education (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think an kindergarten vs a primary school entry will affect her that much. My wife had a grade 1 entry, I had a grade 6 (and came from a school without any french at all). My wife is fully fluent (and has official bilingual status), I can get by, but am out of practice. That says more about our current jobs than anything though.

Immersion is beneficial, I think, even just for itself. It does stretch the student more than unilingual education. However, one thing you do need to watch is that the core non-language classes are maintained, math, social science, geography, etc... It certainly provides benefits later in life, for cultural enjoyment and for travel.

What matters most after school for retaining the second language is practice. If you don't use it regularly, you get rusty fast. Even if she just does the primary immersion (1-6 or 1-8), look for an enriched HS program to maintain her French. In my view, that's far more important than entering the program at age 6, 8 or 12.
posted by bonehead at 11:54 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I attended French Immersion beginning in grade 1 and had no problems. In your situation, it sounds like you would be better off if you waited until the commuting situation was easier.

Here is a study on French Immersion in Canada which may answer some of your questions.
posted by Snazzy67 at 11:57 AM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: Maclean's just had an article about French Immersion but, being Maclean's, they seem to take the controversial stance just because they can. But there are some stats in that article which will answer some of your questions, such as grades and intelligence of regular vs. French immersion track kids. tl;dr: yes it helps, but depends on the kid. Most parents use French immersion as a public "private school" since the class sizes are smaller, and it tends to self-select for parents with higher income, and for parents that are more invested in their child's education.

I am bilingual, but I only started studying French in grade 4 like everyone else (no immersion), and only started studying it seriously in grade 8. And I've been complemented on my fluency an especially my accent (though that could be because apparently I spoke some Polish as a child and developed the throat muscles for other languages?) so I wouldn't say that starting French in kindergarden as opposed to grade 1 is a serious setback in terms of language acquisition. I believe studies show that prior to 8 years of age, language can be acquired with a minimal / no accent. Also there are lots of exchanges to Quebec that can be done in high school and before university (I did 2 such exchanges myself) that are very affordable and that can really help language acquisition.

In my language travels, I've met many immersion kids whose grammar was likely superior to my own, but their accents were atrocious and their speaking style was staccato and not relaxed or conversational at all. So in the end I think it comes down to 1) interest 2) aptitude 3) effort.

That being said, since we watch french tv at home and travel to Europe often, I will most def put my kid in French immersion but that would be my personal choice here. Your situation is different.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:59 AM on April 13, 2015

The really critical factor is to get her in young enough to develop the proper pronunciation and intonations. French has a number of sounds that English doesn't. If she can develop these her accent, while likely to remain identifiably Anglo, will sound much better to native speakers. Thats the difference between, for example Jean Cretin, who never pronounced English well, and Lucien Bouchard, who is very polished, though identifiably French.
posted by bonehead at 12:00 PM on April 13, 2015

I am looking for some references, but IIRC from my child developmental psychology class, the cutoff points are:

less than 8years = no accent*
8-12 years = it's anybody's guess
>12 years = accent

*assuming consistent practice of course
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:05 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kitcat, I understand. I weighed up similar decisions with my kids. In the end, I chose English.

English programs, at least where I live, have more kids with special needs and may be more cash-strapped. The parents may be less involved with the school. It's thought that the kinds of parents who are really involved and care about education opt for French Immersion.

However, it depends on what school you choose! Go check out your local English school. Meet some people on the PAC. Talk to the principal. Talk to the daycare. Check out the community and the resources.

Next, check to see whether your district offers late immersion. Where I live, you can opt for late immersion in Grade 6.

You can also go into FI in Grade 1. Many kids do - it just may be harder to secure a placement.

I didn't do French Immersion but I was interested in French and studied it in regular school as well as a year or two in university. I get around okay with my French and it's not necessarily worse than that of some of my friends who took FI. (It is worse than that of those who went to francophone school.)

FI will require you to be more involved in homework and doing dictees. You might not always know how to help if your own French is not solid. It may not be your child's "thing" and could be a struggle, even if your child is really bright. I have gifted kids who really aren't strong on language and, in fact, do better with more challenges in science and math.

Your districted may have a gifted pull-out program and you could sign your child up for enrichment that way. There may also be (private) French lessons in your community, if you want to help get her up to speed for Grade 1 or Grade 6 entry. You might want to look into gifted and talented programs in your district if you think your child is bright and needs more challenged.

Many of the studies on FI forget to look at the fact that kids who do FI come from educated families with parents who are not intimidated by teachers or the French language, that they have the affluences to afford transportation, that they have work flexibility and stable health care to commute long distances, and so on. This is part of why FI kids may do well. It doesn't mean your child will suffer in an English program. In fact, where I live, it is so hard to get FI teachers and yet so competitive for English teachers that I'm told English teachers are often much more highly skilled. My friend's child recently endured a long-term sub who had only basic knowledge of French for months. It's that hard to hire good teachers!

So, take a look at your values and priorities. I *always* thought I would put my kids in FI. It seemed like a no brainer. But then it didn't work with everything else, let alone with who my kids were. And I am so much happier that we don't have that extra stress on us. And one of my kids was reading at a 10th grade level by second grade - I'd rather my child have that skill than French, honestly. I know the French will come later.

School is a big transition. If French is hugely important to you and you think you can handle the commute, then FI may be the answer. But it's a big transition for all of you and you should look at what works for you. There are many paths to success and to French language skills. I just took regular French in school (in BC, no less) and got good enough to work for a time in a bilingual office, travel around Quebec and France, get interviewed by Radio Canada and so on.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:06 PM on April 13, 2015

I grew up in Eastern Ontario and took core French until Grade 4, then French Immersion (which where I lived meant half of my classes were in French and half were in English, and I studied both French and English grammar), from Grade 4 through to the end of high school. My teachers were mostly not native speakers of French, so while I was strong on formal grammar and conjugating verbs to obscure tenses, my accent and ability to speak idiomatically were pretty poor until I moved to Qu├ębec and actually had to speak French all the time.

I wouldn't say that French Immersion made me fluent in French, but it did make it possible for me to become fluent later, if that makes sense. I think that it matters a lot how much the school and the individual teachers focus on conversation vs. grammar, and that the former is a lot more valuable in terms of actually being able to communicate and work in French if needed.

Where I lived, French immersion classes were definitely a lot smaller and skewed towards kids who were more studious and/or more privileged than the core French classes.

I absolutely don't think that waiting a year or two to enroll your kid in French Immersion would torpedo their ability to become fluent. If you can get French into their life in low-key ways, like being somewhere where folks are speaking French, or putting on French TV or radio, that would help a ton too.
posted by ITheCosmos at 12:17 PM on April 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Studies of bilinguals have supported the idea that they're better at task switching and inhibiting irrelevant information, and some other executive function tasks. Learning French might bump her up a few points on an IQ test. But as far as success in life goes, all signs point to intelligence being less important than emotional self-regulation and competence, and the ability to delay gratification. (And, sure, opportunity afforded by socioeconomic class, but, while Canada doesn't not have class issues, access to e.g. higher education is mostly equitable). That said, being able to claim competence in French on her resume might help your daughter score jobs later on. Recruiters are never not looking for bilinguals, in all fields.

For learning French - the earlier the better, but not sure K vs. grade 1 is worth the tradeoff in stress. (Is there no school bus?)

I attended a French immersion school from K to 8. My accent is reasonably solid (and I think you're right as far as that goes - I happened to have an aptitude and interest in languages), but my vocab is limited, because I rarely practice. (This has led to occasional embarrassment when my accent has led people to assume I'm more fluent than I am.)

FWIW, the two French immersion schools I attended in the 80s were most definitely less diverse than the English schools in the area(s). Quebecois culture was celebrated, and it was interesting to gain exposure to it, but as a non-French person, I did feel a bit left out. (Also, FWIW, one school employed a lot of teachers who made their not-so-subtle separatist leanings clear through informal comments in class. I don't know if that would be more or less in evidence today/where you are, or how much that matters to you.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:30 PM on April 13, 2015

My kids go to French Immersion schools in Victoria. They're also fluent in Japanese (we spend part of the year in Japan and they attend school there).

I think it's something you ought to consider. The great thing about French Immersion is that the kids come from families that genuinely care about education and schooling. The kids in the program also become quite tight-knit as the years go on, and there is less bullying or other stupid stuff.

In fact, based on our older son's experience, I thought that bullying had gone extinct in schools these days. However his friend is in the English-track program and has been beaten up in the halls... in a different part of the school. It was shocking when we heard about that.

So the kids are more motivated to learn, get along better, and have a higher EQ. And they speak French. What could possibly be wrong with that?
posted by Nevin at 12:33 PM on April 13, 2015

Response by poster: and there is less bullying or other stupid stuff

This is a major, MAJOR selling point. Can anyone else confirm with their impressions?
posted by kitcat at 12:37 PM on April 13, 2015

No, there wasn't less bullying in the French immersion schools I attended. There is no necessary connection between language of instruction and approaches to behaviour management. That's down to the school culture.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:39 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some boards won't let you enter in grade 1, so check that out before you make that decision.

Are French immersion kids smarter? Do they get into less trouble? Are quantifiably more successful in life? Is this part of the price of admission to the upper middle class, which we are in financially but not culturally a part of (my husband and I both grew up poor)? Are French immersion schools less diverse? More diverse? What else am I not thinking of?

My son's in extended french (late immersion) and I attended FI and taught in a FI school and here are my candid answers based on that experience:

1. FI kids are not all smarter, but there's a parent-sort factor that comes in, so they tend to come from homes where learning is prioritized. Also, kids who are struggling often get moved over to the English stream.

2. At my son's school, yes. The "good kids" gravitated to the extended french and he has had way fewer issues with kids distracting him in class, bullying, etc. At the school where I taught and attended (same school!), no. I was bullied a lot. I think this is highly dependent on the kids and the school policies.

3. No, plenty of UMC in other programmes and schools.

4. My son's is actually really diverse, but so is our neighbourhood.

This is very particular to our experience but after having experienced the english stream I am seriously considering putting my younger son in early immersion (we made the lifestyle decision to wait for my oldest) if he learns to read this year, because my older son coasted through grades one and two and it caused some issues.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:49 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh more successful in life, sorry. Not me, but I have found it's helped me professionally here and there, especially when I was ed assisting in a FI school. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 12:52 PM on April 13, 2015

My wife did French immersion from high school on with no academic problems whatsoever. She went on to become a tenured university professor so it clearly didn't hold her back.

She did however run into problems with having had a French-Canadian immersion background when she got to McGill and ran into French-France instructors who mocked her second-hand accent.

As for the economics of it - a federal job is both more likely and lucrative if you're bilingual.
posted by srboisvert at 1:10 PM on April 13, 2015

Response by poster: Really good answers. I'm going to find out whether or not she can enter in grade one in the school I'm planning for her to attend. I think FI is what I want to do. Thanks a lot!
posted by kitcat at 2:52 PM on April 13, 2015

Best answer: I attended french immersion from grade 4 through high school and I would highly recommend it based on my experience. I would say there were far more advantages than just learning french. I found elementary school very boring, but studying science and math in french added another level of difficulty that really worked for me. There was a group of about 50 of us (2 classes) that moved together through middle school and high school, both schools were 50:50 english:french. We were a pretty tight group and really stuck together. The french group was definitely more serious about school, students that were struggling dropped down to english.

In my case, I come from a blue-collar family that did not prioritize education, and I credit french immersion for propelling me through to undergrad and grad school. I also had some great exchange opportunities, I spent 4 months in France when I was 14 which was amazing. They also did bus us in from all over the city, but maybe that's not possible anymore.

So I mostly benefited from being in a more challenging environment surrounded by high-achieving peers, learning french was just a nice side effect!
posted by piper4 at 4:17 PM on April 13, 2015

Make sure you look into how far french immersion goes where you are, too. I attended a french immersion elementary school (though in the english stream) and therefore had a lot of friends who were in it. They continued with it in junior high school, and then.. our highschools didn't have french. So they were suddenly tossed into highschool level sciences and socials, without knowing some of the words and concepts in english, which was a bit of a stressor for several of my friends.

also, out of my 3 friends and one boyfriend who were french immersion who I am still in touch with, none of them use their french, and 3 of them can no longer speak it with fluency. ymmv of course, but from my perspective, I wouldn't sacrifice your life to get them the skills.
posted by euphoria066 at 8:29 PM on April 13, 2015

Are French immersion schools less diverse?

Racially and ethnically? Yes, much less diverse, at least in the GTA. This came up in recent media discussions.

As well, a friend of mine who attended French immersion through high school in Etobicoke talks about the fact that her education wasn't quite as good as that of the English students in the (quite upper middle-class suburban) school. Perhaps things have changed (this was the 90s), but restrictions on French teachers (they would only hire native speakers) meant that they didn't really get the best or most motivated teachers.

That said, French language skills are a huge deal in Canada; they open up all sorts of opportunities. But French immersion schools aren't the only ways to gain French skills. The adults I know who are fluent in French are not those who attended French immersion for primary school, but those who did the free, fully immersive summer programs during high school and university. One assures me that she is not "fluent", but she actually taught French as a second language in Japan, she's better than she says.
posted by jb at 9:54 PM on April 13, 2015

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