In 2008, an editorial in the Vancouver Sun criticized French immersion programs for having become a way for higher socioeconomic groups to obtain a publicly funded elite track education. Since lower socioeconomic groups and children with learning and behavioral problems have lower rates of participation in French immersion, a situation has developed in which ambitious families might prefer French immersion for its effective streaming than for the bilingual skills it gives to students.
This is not me continuing to opine on the topic of French Immersion. I cut and pasted the preceding blurb in its entirety from a Wikipedia article on the subject.
And – yes, by the way – “opine” is actually a word. I Googled it. So there.
It looks like French Immersion, sometimes called “Poor Man’s Private School”, is earning itself a bad reputation in more than one quarter. Seems I am not the only one who’s getting the feeling they’re maybe getting the cold shoulder from a snobby local public school. A warm welcome for all who wish to learn may not be guaranteed.
Yes, my suspicions that the Immersion program may be designed, in fact, to cater to an elite group within our neighbourhood has some basis in fact – or, at least – in opinions other than my own. But, as I mused in my last post, should I be willing to pick a fight at school to ensure that my child can remain a part of it, even though the idea of elitism itself rubs me really, REALLY wrong?
I went over the whole conundrum a few nights ago with my husband, who himself – as the child of one immigrant parent (his dad was from Australia) and one “first generation” Canadian parent (both his mom’s parents hailed from the Ukraine) – is huge on a Proper English Education (and a little disparaging about the whole FI thing to begin with). His answer surprised me.
“Well, much as I don’t like French Immersion, I don’t like the way they’re treating us MORE. Anyway, I don’t think they can actually kick him out. I think his right to be in French Immersion is guaranteed in the Constitution.”
My husband emailed me an article that he felt backed up this fact. Or, err, not. Ahh, bilingualism in Canada. It’s actually pretty complicated. What he was talking about, I gather, was actually the Right to Minority Language Education. So what’s that?
Minority Language Education Rights - These are rights that, in fact, ARE enshrined in Canada’s Constitution, but – unfortunately – do NOT mean that every English-speaking Canadian has the right to free French classes. Were it were so. In fact, the right to Minority Language Education simply means that, if you are French, you have a right to be educated in French. It’s as simple as that. While Canada’s repatriated 1982 Constitution does enshrine Minority Language Educational Rights, it does not enshrine my son’s right to be educated in French Immersion.
Like all good principles in law, the idea of the right to minority language education often works better in theory than in practice. If you live in an area within a reasonable distance of a French school – well – they probably have an obligation to make a space for you. In Ottawa, we have a French Separate School Board, as well as a Catholic Board, so you can pretty much choose the education that you want (so long as it’s French, anyhow). If, on the other hand, you live next door to my parents in rural Newfoundland and you happen to be French, I wish you luck in exercising this right. I can’t imagine that a French school exists any closer than a 3-hour drive away. Not even a French Immersion French school. You’ll be moving to St. John’s.
And if you happen to be English in some parts of Quebec? Ditto. Good luck. If you’re what they lovingly call an Allophone (neither French, nor English), you’ll definitely be learning to parlez. You don’t get to choose.
Majority Language Education Rights: As for our family, as I’ve mentioned before, we live in a WASP-y neighbourhood in a more-English-than-French part of a provincially-designated bilingual area (the National Capital Region). So what about our rights? What about Majority Language Education Rights?
Again, some things look better on paper than in practice.
Education is a Service Industry: Education, like every other good and service in society, is driven by consumer demand. If more people want something, more of that something becomes available. And who doesn’t want their little Johnny or Mary to get the best, most elite education available, especially if said elite education is being handed out for the great price of absolutely free?
A 2007 survey by People for Education found that 36% of parents who enrolled their child in an immersion program did so simply because they perceived the program to be more challenging in general. In this scenario, learning French becomes – at best – a secondary concern.
This is something of a contrast to, say, Manitoba, where the concept of inclusivity in immersion is part of the teachers’ handbook. Teachers here are encouraged to utilize different types of techniques for different types of students – a concept known as “differentiated instruction”. Manitoba’s French Immersion teachers are expected to be inclusive of ALL comers, unless they cause undue hardships to the majority due to the cost, safety risks, etc., of including them.
Turns out in our neighbourhood nearly everyone signs up for French Immersion. Almost no one’s left volunteering to send their kid to the English class. Especially if they, perhaps rightly, suspect that the only other kids there will be the ones who have unstable homes, are poor, in foster care, or have big learning (or emotional) issues that prevent them from keeping up with the (“smarter”) kids in FI.
So Is It Streaming? It’s not just that the French Immersion group might actually be a better, more enriching environment, it’s also that being in the English class carries the stigma of not being as “good”. That Johnny and Mary are dummies if they’re in the English class.
Like I said, that’s our neighbourhood anyway.
Is that what I want for Boo? To already be veering him away from the elite academic group? To be giving him (and letting the others give him) the message that SK proved he wasn’t good enough? That he couldn’t keep up? That (maybe) we couldn’t get our shit together enough to do this?
If they’re going to offer us an option that wasn’t there before, they will need to prove that it’s in fact an Excellent English Education they’re offering. They need to show, irregardless of what other kids may be making up the rest of the new group, that it’s not “the slow class.” Sorry to be blunt about that.
I did make the mistake, at one point, of letting the French teacher know that Dad – at least – was a little ambivalent about French Immersion. Perhaps now (and I am guessing here) the school is under some pressure to make sure their “dual track” system (supposed to be offering BOTH French Immersion AND English options) is a reality on the ground, and not just blue sky-ing in a glossy pamphlet somewhere. And, of course, they’re counting on me to pull my son out of the program he’s already successfully finished (or just about) his first year in. After all, I did point out the absence of a real choice.
An Education Should Be About A Child, Not An Ideology: Unfortunately, despite my personal political views on this, this choice is not about me. Not about my husband. It’s about Boo. And Boo likes French Immersion. He likes to be with his friends. And – as far as I can tell – he’s doin’ just fine. He read me a book (in English) again last night. He can recite a play (“La Poule Maboule” – it’s basically a French “Henny Penny”) en français. And he’s got his sister running around the house shouting “Coupe, coupe, COUPE!” and chopping me down by the legs. I really believe he’s learned a lot.
For me, giving my kids some stability (i.e. consistancy, or an “absence of unnecessary change”, if you prefer) is an important part of my Prime Directive. My Prime Directive (both at work and at home) is to NOT discourage my kids, but – rather – to foster their potential by granting them time, stability, opportunities, and self-confidence. Pulling my son out of his French Immersion class now simply to make the point that an Excellent English Education should have been available to him in the first place is really not on, as far as I’m concerned. He’s already been, implicitly, promised a French Immersion education. Who am I to take that away now?
Well anyway. Already I’m planning to go to this meeting and make absolutely NO decisions or commitments whatsoever either way. I’m just planning to collect the information (whatever it is) and go home. I swore on a stack of Bibles to my husband that that’s what I’d do. I’m saying it here so I can be publicly held to account on it too.
Back at the ranch… I still haven’t received the (promised) note home from his teacher to confirm that we have a meeting in the first place,. So, really, I don’t know what in heck is going on. Is this important or not?
What do I hope for my son? My son is not me, nor is he my husband, although he is parts of us both. He carries our history, yet he is part of Canada’s future. This is a story that is yet unwritten. Boo may be glad to have French. He may travel. He may use it for work (or not – his choice). Then again, he may feel the second language kept him from learning other things well, kept him from tapping into his parents’ ability to help with homework in subjects like music, science, or math. He may even blame us if he is a crappy speller. Who knows? My own husband questions the purpose of making the next generation “Immersion bilingual.” And he may be right about that.
But, for now, my son’s future is his own story to write. And I still hope to give him the option of writing it in either official language.
Okay, So What’s Really Important Here? The most important thing for me to keep in mind in all of this is Boo. At home, this kid’s a big, big talker. He started early in life. He was chatty, clear, and verbose by the time he was 22 months old. He demonstrated an enjoyment of BIG words – ten (and fifty!) dollar words became part of how he spoke from early on. He likes to tell long stories. He likes to make new friends.
For this particular little boy, my opinion is that more vocab is more vocab. I believe that a second language could turn out to be a really great gift that I can – with surprising ease, considering my own background – give to him. All politics aside, I think French could be a wonderful thing for both my children. Maybe that’s something worth fighting for after all.
Looking forward to all your comments on this! If you live in another part of the country (or world!) and have a perspective to offer on bilingualism or an immersion education, I’d particularly like to hear from you!
Plus de lecture sur l’Immersion Français – A short bibliography of interesting reading for the curious!
And – finally – if you want to suddenly feel quite small, here’s a fascinating article about (all!) the Languages of Canada.