In previous posts I have talked about the importance of learning a second language and especially French for Canadians. I have mused that French Immersion has created an upper and lower class in our schools and I have pointed out that in Ontario, at least, school boards do not have to account for the funds earmarked for French. As the funds are paid on the basis of per child per hour studying French, this makes French Immersion a money earner for thrifty boards.
Today I want to look at the educational reasons for French Immersion. Normally one would think of the process of immersion as a thorough dunking of an object in something to the point of soaking it completely. An immersed sponge would become saturated to the point of dripping. Immersion language teaching varies from that kind of full soaking in a language, idiom and culture of the second language or L2 to daily L2 classes supplemented by daily classes in another subject but studied in the L2. In the latter case, the student would be living and attending school in her first language, L1.
There are two good justifications for immersion programs. The first is the simple pedagogical principle that increased time on task increases proficiency. Gretzky may have had talent but without the practice and lots of it, he still wouldn’t have been the Great Gretzky. The second is that language is a tool for thinking and communication, learned more effectively when put in to practice. Teacher talk calls this authentic learning.
An example of full immersion would be the program that SEVEC (Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada) endeavours to provide free to young anglophones. Students spend a month in a francophone region, often billeted with a francophone family and study French intensively in the mornings. Afternoons are devoted to activities in French. Use of any other language is discouraged.
Canadian French Immersion programs falls somewhere between the two points of SEVEC and one extra class taught in L2. There are three entry points for students: early, kindergarten or grade one, middle, usually grade four and late, grade seven. Students entering at the early point are taught in French 100% of the time for the first couple of years. After that English is introduced and each year more of the program is taught in English until grade 5 or 6 when the program is taught half in English and half in French.
The theory is that young children learn languages faster and more easily than their elders; there is some dispute about that which I will address it in a later post. The children learn to read and write in French first because learning these skills at once in two languages would be confusing and difficult. After they have mastered the basics in French, English is introduced at grade two or three. Learning to read and write in English should not take as long as in French because the students have already grasped the basic skills of literacy. For example, they know that letters make up words and words make up sentences and together they have meaning.
In many boards three entry points have become too expensive as it requires four streams of French (including core French) so one entry point, middle immersion, is frequently dropped. It is also the least popular so I will follow the lead of the school boards’ and drop it, too. It shouldn’t affect this discussion.
Students entering at the grade seven point will have 80% of their classes in French. They will have mastered most of the major skills in English and an English class, which will often be about half the time of that of the regular English class, will maintain those skills.
These students have been studying French throughout elementary school. Although early French lessons focus on oral skills, the students will have a good foundation for immersion. Just as the early entry students saw a crossover in skills from French to English, so these students will see a transfer in skills from English to French and back again.
The Canadian French Immersion programs are often referred to separately in scholarly tomes and articles about L2 language learning. There are certain basic principles that key Canadian scholars cite as being characteristic of FI:
Johnson and Swain (1997) summarize eight core features of immersion programs as follows:
1. The L2 is a medium of instruction
2. The immersion curriculum parallels the local L1 curriculum
3. Overt support exists for the L1
4. The program aims for additive bilingualism*
5. Exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classroom
6. Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency
7. The teachers are bilingual
8. The classroom culture is that of the local L1 community
Additive bilingualism means that the second language is learned without “cost to the first”. This is claim I would like to take issue with in a later post. The bilingualism of all the FI teachers is another. I would agree that it is ideal; I doubt very strongly that every teacher in an FI classroom is bilingual in the sense of being equally fluent in both languages and with a native-like accent in French.
This post has been a description of French Immersion in Ontario and the theory that supports it. In my next post I will address the kinds of questions we need to answer before we can say that FI is a successful option for Canadian public school systems:
Is French Immersion accessible to all students?
Do students in the program have access to remediation or special education in the event of a learning disability?
Does current theory of L2 acquisition support FI?
Do the students who persist in the program to the end of grade twelve have substantially better French (ideally approaching a native like fluency and accuracy) than their peers who also persisted in studying French to the end of grade twelve?
Is the students’ English unaffected by the program?
Has the quality of the core French program suffered due to the existence of FI through, for example, the thinning of French teachers or the paucity of materials?
If you have comments or corrections on this post or information that might help me answer the above questions, please contact me. This blog is always about using facts and logic in the service of education.
To refresh and familiarise myself with recent theories and practices in second language learning, I have relied on the three books listed below. I found them invaluable in filling the gaps since the last time I studied and taught in the field and pulling together the other references I consulted:
Ellis, Rod. The Study of Second Language Acquisition: second edition. 2008
Kumaravadivelu, B. Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod, 2006
McLaughlin, Barry. Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood: Volume 2. School-Age Children Second Edition. 1985