The real equity problem with French immersion is the reluctance of too many school boards to make it available to ALL students, especially in under-serviced neighbourhoods.
In his opinion piece in The Star last week, Sachin Maharaj derides what he calls “the spell of French immersion.”
He’s right about one thing: there’s nothing magical about French immersion. Its effect is very real — empowering young people across Canada. That’s why, of all the anti-immersion tropes, the most infuriating is the one that immersion is “elitist.”
As a decade-plus volunteer with Canadian Parents for French, I’ve seen the way immersion opens doors — not for the “elite” — but for students from every walk of life, especially new Canadians, whose parents want their kids to fully engage in every aspect of Canadian life.
Meet Wadeed. His family immigrated to Canada when he was a toddler. His parents didn’t know a word of French and Wadeed was learning English. They chose a bilingual country and then French immersion for their children. They were lucky enough to get into the program ahead of the restrictions on student numbers and the reduction in hours put in place by Peel Region.
Wadeed has hosted a radio show on a French station, is a mentor to his siblings and cousins, encouraging them to work hard in French immersion and to stick with it to Grade 12 to get the full benefit. He is doing bio-chem at university and with French in his tool kit, he is up for 100 per cent of possible opportunities across Canada and many more around the world.
Meet Sydney. Sydney and her parents have been on an extraordinary journey with French immersion. Her parents also wanted the best possible education and every possible opportunity. They also didn’t know a word of French. Educators and administrators told them repeatedly that Sydney was not “French immersion material.” That her diagnosed learning challenges and ADHD meant French was a frill, not a needed skill. Her parents pushed back, over and over again and
Sydney got her bilingual certificate in Grade 12 as an Ontario Scholar. She went on to Carleton University and was able to get a great part-time job in Ottawa and Gatineau to help finance her studies, because she could work in French. She transitioned from the immersion classroom to working with Francophones. Within two weeks of graduating university, Sydney had a full-time bilingual position with a Forbes “Best Canadian Employer.” She interviewed in French for the position.
Wadeed and Sydney achieved our Ontario goal for French as a second language students: to have the confidence to use their French in their daily lives. Research and common sense tells us that success in language learning is tied to early learning and time spent in the target language. Core French offers 600 hours in Grades 4 to 8, while even the weakest early French immersion program offers 3,800 of French time.
The real equity problem with French immersion is the reluctance of too many school boards to make it available to ALL students, especially in underserviced neighbourhoods. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) grads, Callie Mady and Katy Arnett’s work in inclusion in French programs shows us that not only do marginalized groups want in, but that educators and administrators are the gatekeepers who need to refresh their thinking.
The Toronto District School Board, OISE and University of Toronto research shows us that French immersion students develop the French proficiency needed to be able to attend Francophone universities and colleges AND they meet or surpass the results of their peers in math and English by Grade 6 EQAO.
Another Ontario goal is to have French second language classrooms that reflect the diversity of the community. The first step is to honestly look at who is in those classrooms and who is not, and the second step is to make equity just as much a feature of French immersion as it is in every area of education.
We may have “English” school boards but they are Canadian first. Canada has two official languages. Let’s embrace the annual growth rate of French immersion of 5.7 per cent as a major success story in public education. Let’s get to work making sure every student in Ontario can access French immersion and acquire the language skills to fully participate in the public and cultural life of our country.
Mary Cruden is the recipient of the Ontario Prix de la Francophonie and a Canadian Parents for French volunteer.