The Problem With French Immersion

10 Feb

I’m not a French Immersion teacher, but I have experience with the program. I’ve taught at French Immersion dual track schools, I was the husband of a French Immersion teacher for many years (not currently) and I’ve been a parent of kids that I considered enrolling in French Immersion. These experiences have led me to question the existence of French Immersion in Canadian schools. There are many good reasons why public education would be better if French Immersion was discontinued.

Here’s why:

1) French Immersion is a form of ‘stealth choice’, a way for parents to get their children into what they think is a ‘better’ school than their local school without appearing elitist, abandoning the public system or spending extra money (I know parents who admit this). This removes families and students who are motivated and care about the education of their children from local schools. It means fewer active parents volunteering their time and advocating for their children in their local school and fewer strong motivated students in the local classroom setting higher standards and sharing expertise with other students.

2) French Immersion uses more resources. Students are centralized which requires board provided transportation. It requires the buying of French only learning resources that can’t be shared with non-French Immersion students and  specialized professional development for French Immersion teachers.

3) French Immersion is not an effective way to learn French. This 2005 study surveyed 17 studies and found “…negative effects of immersion programs and did not find a single study that supported immersion over other bilingual programs.  It is clear from these findings that immersion is not a very effective form of bilingual education“.  This is supported by French Immersion teachers who say the gains of French only, in the classroom, is undermined by using English in the rest of the school and the community. Students quickly see that using French in class is a conceit, a school game, and not a skill they use in their daily lives. It lacks relevance.

4) The importance of student choice. When my son was entering kindergarten we considered enrolling him in French Immersion. It required a long bus ride so I discussed the system with a Peel School Board trustee. She said an internal study indicated ‘exit fluency’ of students enrolled in Extended French (grades 6-8) was equal to those of students enrolled in French Immersion (K-8).  Students who enroll in grade 6 are self-motivated and want to learn French, whereas many students enrolled in primary grades are there only because of the parent’s motivation.

5) There is very little or no special education support for students in French Immersion programs. Students in French Immersion who need accommodations or modifications to their program are often told that if they want special education support they will need to switch to an English track school.

I question French Immersion programs. Parents use it as stealth choice. It’s a way to get their children into ‘better’ schools by cloaking it under multiculturalism or bilingualism, avoiding the stigma of elitism. It weakens the rest of the school system by concentrating students with supportive families in a single location and using extra resources. The evidence is that it doesn’t do a very good job in its stated purpose.

In spite of this I don’t expect French Immersion will go away any time soon. The parents of students in French Immersion are committed, vocal and well resourced. This probably explains the existence of French Immersion programs in the first place. But that doesn’t make them right.

14 Responses to “The Problem With French Immersion”

  1. Royan Lee February 10, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    As a parent of kids who go to FI, and as a teacher who teaches English at one, I support every argument you make. It’s a major source of cognitive dissonance in my life.

  2. amumtobb February 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    I had a feeling this was in response to my blog post. You know, I’m always very curious what people mean by “good schools” and “better schools”. How is this determined? Teachers/admin? EQAO scores? Technology? The building? My older son’s FI school is “better” in that it offers the program we want. But my younger son’s school is, as far as I can tell, also a good school, possibly better if you are looking at the building itself, the technology available, the involvement of parents, the fact we can walk there. I have no idea about the EQAO scores (even if I cared to look, our English home school was brand new when #1 started attending, so there wasn’t any data; his FI school has recently transitioned from a 6-8 English school to (currently) 1-4 FI, so again, there weren’t any relevant scores to look at.) I think schools are as good as the staff, but that’s not something that is static or that parents have control over (and principals change every few years.) The fact that my kids like their teachers and are learning is what matters to me.

    I’m also curious about point #2. Isn’t that sort of like saying money spent on musical instruments means there is less for math manipulatives? Aren’t both programs worthwhile? Is there ever enough money? I’d argue having separate and public boards that don’t share resources is a bigger issue. (In terms of busing, if I switched my older son back to the English stream, he’d still have to be bused: our home school is overflowing. I suspect there are still many “strong motivated students” attending…)

    I can’t argue your point about the end results of FI. I only know here, the proof is in the pudding: my 8 year old can speak and read more than I ever could taking Core French gr. 4-13, and I was usually the top of the class. I may have learned to conjugate verbs, but I didn’t actually learn French. I would have gladly considered late-entry immersion for my kids as I have also heard the fluency rate is the same, but my board doesn’t offer it. It is true I make the education decisions for them at this stage.

    Your arguments are valid and I particular agree about the lack of Spec Ed support in FI. I can’t speak for other parents, but I admit I get tired of hearing that I chose FI for reasons that never crossed my mind.

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) February 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      What makes a school better, in the way I intended it is subjective. It’s whatever the parents decide it to be. In some cases there’s some use of test data, but I think more often than not it’s driven by public perception, what other people think about it.

      The resources issue is really about the concentration of resources to benefit the few. I’d rather have those resources going into improving French instruction for all students rather than the few who attend FI. If those parents think there kids need more/different instruction then let them provide the resources for it.

      I don’t question anyone’s decisions to do what’s right for their child and I would do the same for mine if I thought it was the best for them. I don’t know why to you made the choices you did and I fully support your right to make them. But I question what’s going on here.

  3. Derek Hatch (Hatcherelli) February 11, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Hi Andrew,
    I just wanted to remind you that there are 2 officials languages in Canada. As a parent, I want to give my kids every advantage available to them. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not learn to speak French fluently, and that has really held me back. We also want to challenge our kids academically. FI provides kids with this challenge. French immersion is not for every student…it is an educational choice for students and families.

    • ballacheybears February 11, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

      I support French in schools. I question French immersion. I think it’s being run for the wrong reasons and I’d like to see those resources better used to benefit all students, not just the few with supportive families who encourage them to try FI.

  4. Glen Thielmann February 12, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    I can agree with aspects of #1 and #5, but I take issue with # 2 and #3. In our SD (57), French Immersion students do not get bused, so there is no extra costs for the three schools that offer FI. The fact that they have been spread across the three natural areas of our city means they have been able to keep three community schools open that might otherwise have been closed or reconfigured. Unfortunately (see your argument #5), the students are more homogenous than most English schools (e.g. less IEPs. less poverty), so they actually have funding pulled and re-allocated to inner city schools with more learning challenges and vulnerable students. In effect, the FI schools are cash-cows for the district — they can fill the classes to the max, provide minimal extras, and use the savings to subsidize schools with deep needs. So… #2 is very much false in our SD.

    As for the effectiveness of French language education… all I know is that I am never going to teach my kids French by wishing it on them or paying for night classes. The tiny but of French kids get in a regular English secondary school will not make them bilingual – if they are to learn French it has to be intensive. My children in FI do not treat French like a school game. For my son in kindergarten, it is a special way to communicate, an intimate path to learning — he associates French with singing, his great teacher, his school activities… it is a source of wonder for him. My Gr. 3 daughter can fully converse in French, and would fare far better in Quebec or France or Mali or a blingual gov’t agency than I ever could with my splattering of high school French. If she was not in FI, she would not know any French, it is that simple… there are no other realistic options — certainly none we can afford or have the time for.

    Yes, my wife and I will be more involved at the FI school than our neighbourhood school, which happens to be inner city. We know about the backdrop of poverty and sometimes drugs or worse, the focus on remedial literacy and behaviour regulation, alcoholic/abusive situations faced by many of the students there. We also know that our school district has put a lot of resources and staff into the inner city school to address theses issues. I actually went there when I was a kid… but it is not something I want to put my kids through… not because of class or status but because the skills and survival strategies they are trying to impart at that school are not a good fit for our kids, plus the fact we think bilingualism is awesome and will service them well through-out their lives for a variety of reasons. At a base level I am also completely comfortable admitting that I would prefer my kids hang out with other kids that are less likely to be involved with drugs and crime. My kids’ lives are far from sanitized, and they have their own problems, but I won’t ignore the parenting instinct to craft a safe social, developmental, and learning environment for them.

    At first I thought your post was out to lunch but I realize your perspective is perhaps strongly influenced by your local distance and bus-ride to FI school — this is not an issue here. Another contextual difference is the choice aspect. My city of Prince George has so many at-risk and vulnerable students and neighbourhoods that FI is often the only realistic option for parents that don’t require the intense interventions that accompany inner city schools. I think it would be awesome, though, if we expanded French Immersion to at least one of our inner city schools… the overlap could be interesting and might be a way to reverse the “FI flight” that exacerbates the expected socio-economic difference between them.

    • ballacheybears February 12, 2013 at 7:46 am #

      I don’t dispute that FI is working well for your children, but that doesn’t make it a good idea for the whole system. A few successes doesn’t make an argument. FI affects millions of kids so there’s bound to be some good news. And I don’t begrudge your right to take advantage of a program that is working well for your kids. But FI is not proven effective and in most districts makes education less effective for the vast majority of non-FI students. More concerning it is driven not by sound education policy but by catering to parental aspirations not student need. I think that’s a problem.

  5. Mark February 12, 2013 at 6:29 am #

    Hi, as a teacher at a school that regularly loses students to French Immersion and being a friend of teachers who teach the students that do not enrol in FI I can tell you that all of your points are spot on. I have great kids in my grade 8 class and FI is not for everyone, but the most insidious threat that I see in my school is the skimming of the “best” students each year. This speaks to point number one. The high achieving academic students move to the other school as they perceive a greater academic experience. And to some extent that is correct. When you collect all of the high students from all local schools and place them in one central school, (and by the way there is only 1 with an IEP this year between grades 4-8) then you do get the desired effect. It is devastating to the schools they left.

  6. Erin Little February 12, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    I teach (in English) in a dual track school, although we now have more FI than English. What happens, as PP said, the more academically inclined students with more support at home end up in FI and the English classes end up with 16 out of 20 kids on an IEP and very little extra support. It is totally elitist, in fact we have started calling it the English Ghetto because we feel English has been ghettoized (not in a funny way, in a sad way). It affects other schools also because we bus students from farther away to the FI school leaving schools in neighbouring towns with higher levels of challenging students – academic & behaviour challenges (my board is small population wise and large geographically). I don’t know enough about the research on effectiveness to comment but I will look up the report referenced above. As for funding, I know there is extra from the Ministry but I’m not sure how it affects the school budgets.

    My 6 year old twins are in FI because I would never send them to the English classroom here, it would be a chaotic, disruptive environment for them. I don’t know what the answer is but there are problems.

    • ballacheybears February 12, 2013 at 8:41 am #

      Thanks for the comment. It’s important that parents who put their kids in FI understand the consequences of that program for the rest of the system.

  7. SStewart February 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Thank you for extending this conversation some more, Andrew. A lot can often go unsaid.

    As I mentioned on Andrea’s post, I do understand the importance and value of learning French to many families, but I think some parents do choose the program for other reasons that may have less to do with really wanting their children to be bilingual. But as you said, FI is probably not going away any time soon. It is interesting reading about the impact in some other districts in the comments here. I would hope there would be ways for each district to really examine their unique trends, demographics, communities, etc. to ensure this “choice” is not detrimental to other neighbourhoods. No easy task, I am sure.

    I think the commitment of our education system to provide this choice has created issues in other ways. Perhaps not anticipated, but they have been created. With declining enrolment, maybe the impact is changing as well.

    Don’t the French boards in Ontario have a different process/requirement for their enrolment?

  8. Anonymous February 13, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    I teach (in English) in a dual track school, although we now have more FI than English. What happens, as pp said, is the more academically inclined students with more support at home end up in FI and the English classes end up with 16 out of 20 kids on an IEP and very little extra support. It is totally elitist, in fact we have started calling it the English Ghetto because we feel English has been ghettoized (not in a funny way, in a sad way). It affects other schools also because we bus students from farther away to the FI school leaving schools in neighbouring towns with higher levels of challenging students – academic & behaviour challenges (my board is small population wise and large geographically). I don’t know enough about the research on effectiveness to comment but I will look up the report referenced above. As for funding, I know there is extra from the Ministry but I’m not sure how it affects the school budgets. Some of the more cynical staff actually think we became an FI school to get the extra funds which were not shared with the FI teachers until they put up a stink about having no resources. We have two French boards here which accept English speaking students in JK so the competition for students is fierce.

    My children are in FI because I would never send them to the English classroom here, it would be a chaotic, disruptive environment for them at worst; or they wouldn’t get much personal attention at best. I don’t know what the answer is but there are problems.

  9. SStewart February 13, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Here it is (French Boards):

    http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/amenagement/admission.html

    There are 12 French school boards in Ontario. Both English and Catholic boards offer FI (total boards in Ont. = 72)

  10. Robert Pritchard July 17, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    Thank you for initiating this discussion. Do you happen to know of any studies on whether one learns the actual curriculum, e.g. Math or Geography, any better or worse if the instruction is in a second language? The postings here and elsewhere suggest that this is not really an issue for many parents, as they’re happy to have their kids schooled in the company of the more ambitious children, who (they think) tend to teach themselves; or that the learning of other skills and subjects is secondary, that knowing some French is paramount. I suspect that the mixing language and content learning, at any level, tends to compromise both; but that’s rather my hunch.

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