French immersion changes need work

pg04-e-cartoon tnLearning French and English equally in kindergarten in a bilingual city seems black and white, until you see the grey in the middle.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted recently to make changes to its French immersion program. The changes will be implemented in French immersion schools starting in the next school year.The changes will have junior and senior kindergarteners spending half of their day learning in French – that’s 150 minutes a day. This is a significant jump from the current 20 minutes.

We are a bilingual country, and Ottawa is a bilingual city, so this decision shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is. 

Right now, two sides are arguing. The school board wanted the decision to go through sooner in order to save money, while parents wanted more testing done first. Ultimately, the school board decided to start this new French immersion program in the 2016 school year. 

More French at a younger age – easy choice, right? 

Well, let’s look at it from the perspective of the kids for a minute.

If a child grew up in an English-speaking household, 50 per cent of the day in French isn’t so bad. And if they grew up in a French-speaking household, 50 per cent of the day in English isn’t so bad. But, to assume all children in Ottawa grew up in a French or English household is outrageous. 

Twenty-point-six per cent of Canadians, that is more than six-and-a-half million people, reported to Statistics Canada that their mother tongue was neither English nor French. 

We are not only a bilingual country, we are also a multicultural country. And Ottawa is one of the largest multicultural cities. Not all children speak French or English as a first language at home. Yet, it seems this fact was completely overlooked by the school board. 

In order to properly learn a second language, you need to have a solid base in your first language. And in order to learn a third language you need a solid base in your first and second languages, and so on. So, for children whose first language is either English or French, making junior and senior kindergarten half days in both languages isn’t that big of an issue, but for a child who speaks Mandarin or Arabic at home, it is going to make school a terrifying place.

A study done by the University of Haifa in Israel in 2011 found that students who are already bilingual have an easier time learning a third language than students who are only fluent in one language who try to learn two languages at the same time. 

Imagine speaking one language and going to a new place, away from your parents for the first time, and having everyone else speak two other languages you barely recognize. It would be disorientating to say the least. 

Wanting to add more French at a younger age and have a more balanced French to English ratio in French immersion programs is a good idea in principle, but skipping over a proper testing period could end up hurting more than it helps.

Maintaining a shorter amount of time in French while in junior kindergarten would help establish a better foundation in English before throwing children into both languages. Broadening young minds to more languages is a good concept, but this execution needs work.