kitchen table math, the sequel: DeeDee on French immersion schools

Sunday, March 8, 2009

DeeDee on French immersion schools

We are in Toronto, Canada. The French "immersion" stream in our public school system is full of kids whose parents think they are too smart for the regular stream but they haven't tested into gifted. It's generally acknowledged as a way of providing extra challenge if the parents think their kids will be bored at school.

However, anyone I know that has graduated from the immersion stream admits that it did them no good - there is a real dearth of teachers who meet all 3 requirements of a good immersion teacher (especially in the higher levels): they know their subject material, they are natively fluent in French, and they are good teachers. So the farther you go in the immersion stream, the worse the teaching gets and the less the kids learn.

My husband was researching this and came across the term "interlanguage fossilization" which describes one result - kids learning a second language from each other and from non-native speakers, who end up creating a language that is not a natural language spoken by anyone.

On top of that, the reasons for parents choosing the French has the further effect of devaluing the regular English-stream, creating all kinds of problems in the student populations of schools where both streams are offered.

I haven't read the book you mentioned, but if it disparages the Canadian immersion system, I wouldn't be surprised.

Fluenz & lefty book recommendation


Tracy W said...

I heard a story that during WWI the British used men who had been taught French at British schools to talk on the first radio sets for security. The men could understand each other, but the French couldn't understand them when they were speaking French, so the British reckoned that the Germans would have no hope of breaking the code.
I don't know whether this story is true or not.

Amy P said...

Have you ever looked at the British pronunciation of French-origin words? It's like they are purposely being mangled out of all recognition (see the Brit pronunciation of "garage"). The rule seems to be to remove the accent from the last syllable and wrestle it onto a different syllable. I'm almost surprised that they don't pronounce "bouquet" as "bucket."

Anonymous said...

"Have you ever looked at the British pronunciation of French-origin words? It's like they are purposely being mangled out of all recognition..."

Have you ever looked at the British pronunciation of some *English* words?

They pronounce "hood" as "bonnet", "trunk" as "boot" and "elevator" as "lift." What the hell? C'mon guys, these words are fairly phonetic!

Not only that, they often horribly misspell these words, too!

And there are plenty of others ...

-Mark Roulo

Ben Calvin said...

I've heard "cafe" (a place to get a bite to eat) pronounced the same as "calf" (a baby cow) in the U.K.

mktyler said...

I am at a loss for the popularity of immersion schools. Isn't it the same issue as non-English speaking immigrant children being thrown into an all English speaking class? Don't these children struggle? Isn't that why there is such preponderance of materials designed especially for ESL? And people are choosing this option for their kids?!

One middle school reading teacher I know says she has many kids in her classes who can not speak well in any language. It concerns me that these experiments may hamper the overall language ability of the children.

The idea of linguistic neuroplasticity in young children seems misplaced in these programs; the emphasis should be on using that plasticity for advanced development in the native language.


DeeDee said...


Here in Toronto, the French immersion stream is chosen by most parents as a way of providing challenge to their (supposedly) above-average kids whom they believe would be bored in the regular classroom. That attitude is why students in the regular English stream are looked down upon as too dumb to handle French immersion.

Parents in the know who do not want their kids in immersion, are unlikely to place their kids in the regular stream of their neighbourhood school if it also offers French immersion classes; instead, they will choose to go outside their neighbourhood to an all-English school to avoid the negative social stigma.

Yes, immersion seems to have a deleterious effect on the native English-language skills (and this likelihood is not hidden from parents when they choose immersion). These kids take all subjects in French until grade 5, so if their parents have not worked with them outside school on their English writing skills, they tend to have very poor spelling and grammar when they have to work in English. (Tellingly, I don't know of any teachers in the regular stream who have chosen French-immersion for their kids - they know better.)

However, the immersion parents I know don't seem to think these are issues. The kids who are successful in immersion are naturally the kids who have more involved parents. They tend also to be the kids whose first language is English as immigrant families are naturally more concerned about their kids learning English than French, so the immersion classrooms consist of a higher-than-normal proportion of high-income, white, English-speaking kids.

Another reinforcing factor is that a parent with no French background can't help with the kid's homework. So again, children whose parents grew up in Canada (we all have to study French at least as a second language for a few years) are at an advantage to be successful in this desirable program, and recent immigrants are at an additional disadvantage.

The program's existence thus has the result of segregating classes (we have a very high immigrant population here in Toronto), providing yet another reason for middle and higher income white families to put their kids into immersion as a way of keeping them out of the "less-desirable" regular stream.