Public education is accessible to all learners in Canada, and yet publicly funded French immersion (FI) programs repeatedly face charges of elitism. In the March 30th issue ofMaclean’s magazine, associate editor Aaron Hutchins, described FI as “an elitist, overly restrictive system, geared to benefit a certain type of student.”
Is there any truth to the allegation that FI is only suitable for bright children from English-speaking, high socioeconomic backgrounds? Many school board officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents share this elitist view, despite research evidence indicating that most students can achieve success in FI programs.
Misconceptions about FI are widespread and serve to fuel these charges of elitism. For the most part, they stem from the studies with methodological weaknesses or research results that were taken out of context. Some are simply based on preconceived notions. When presented with these misconceptions, parents often hesitate to enrol their children in FI schools. For example, parents of children who are exhibiting early signs of difficulty or have special education needs are often cautioned about the challenges their children will face if placed in a FI program. They are frequently told that a FI placement will exacerbate their children’s problems. New Canadians and parents who speak languages other than English at home are regularly informed that their children should focus on gaining proficiency in English before learning French. More often than not, they are advised that learning an additional language will adversely affect the development of first language skills. Families from low socioeconomic backgrounds are warned of the academic struggles their children will experience in FI schools.
What does the latest research tell us? Studies have consistently demonstrated that the majority of children, including those with learning challenges, can be successful in FI programs. They have also revealed that first language skills are not jeopardized by second language learning, that skills can and do transfer from one language to another, and that knowledge of an additional language enhances cognitive abilities. Furthermore, investigations have shown that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds perform just as well academically in FI programs as they do in English-only programs, and that they function more confidently in French than their counterparts in English-only programs (Bourgoin, 2012; Genesee, 2012).
When the time comes to enrol their children in the public school system, most Canadian parents have two options: the English-only program or the FI program. Prospective FI parents should not be asking the question: “Is FI suitable for my child?” This suggests that FI programs are only suitable for some learners, a claim that has never been substantiated by research. Recent studies have found no identifiable characteristics that consistently predict learner success in the acquisition of a second language, which might partially explain why there are no screening procedures in place for children who enrol in FI schools. Instead, parents should be asking, “Should I give my child the opportunity to become functionally bilingual in both French and English, Canada’s two official languages?”
Inclusive education has been trending in recent years, and school boards are under pressure to take a less exclusionary approach in FI schools. Publicly supported FI programs should be accessible to all learners, and resources must be available to meet their educational needs. After all, how can we justify the costs associated with offering these bilingual education programs and not give students every chance to succeed? Don’t parents have the right to expect that their children’s learning needs will be accommodated in both English-only and FI schools?
We must stop perpetuating the elitist status attributed to FI programs and give new Canadians, children from varied language and socioeconomic backgrounds, those with learning challenges and special education needs greater access to these programs. In order to become more accessible to all learners, FI must challenge itself to do better.
Nancy Wise is director of French Immersion Educational Consulting Inc.