English-speaking Canadians want their children to be bilingual. `French immersion' programs may lead to marketable skill

Given the choice, more and more English-speaking parents in Canada enroll their children in school programs designed to teach their offspring to be bilingual. Elementary school children in these French immersion (FI) classes learn the standard curriculum, but almost no English is spoken in the classroom for the first three years. Today only 5 percent of the total number of Canadian students are enrolled in FI, but this represents a jump from 30,000 students eight years ago to 148,000 today.

Ian Daniels, superintendent of the North York school district in Toronto, says French immersion ``is growing as fast as it can. We have to be careful because there are only so many qualified teachers.'' If this trend continues, some experts predict that, within the next decade, there may be as many students enrolled in FI programs as in traditional, English-only classes.

There are several reasons for this trend. Biculturalism and bilingualism generally have been gaining popularity here since the mid-1960s. In a recent Gallup poll, 66 percent of Canadian parents felt their children should be bilingual, 60 percent would put their children in immersion programs if they were available, and a full 50 percent say they think FI should be compulsory.

Out of a population of some 25 million, more than 6 million Canadians are primarily French-speaking. Both English and French are official languages.

FI appeals to parents not only because it gives children a marketable skill, but also for less-tangible, quality-of-life reasons. In a tighter economy, bilingualism helps: 78 percent of the highest-paying jobs in Canada's federal government -- the nation's largest single employer -- are held by bilingual persons.

But it's also ``a `motherhood' thing,'' says Sharon Lapkin, an associate professor with the Modern Language Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISIE). Parents realize that bilingualism enables their child to more fully engage in Canadian life. ``It's almost poetic to talk about the virtues of enhancing your child's outlook,'' she says.

This ``motherhood thing'' also explains how FI has been able to make swift inroads into the Canadian system. The rise of FI is a story of effective grass-roots lobbying by English-speaking parents who felt frustrated by the unilingual (largely English) system.

In 1977, Keith Spicer, then government commissioner of official languages, brought 35 parents together to discuss education issues. The result: Canadian Parents for French (CPF), a national organization which today has over 50,000 members.

CPF was able to make French immersion instruction a reality through ``sheer persistence,'' says Pat Webster, one of the 35 parents.

Deborah Whale, another founding member, says: ``Spicer told us we would have some government support. But he made it clear that the government couldn't go out into the neighborhoods, start local parent groups, get people involved. We realized that, ultimately, no one could do this job but ourselves.''

The progress CPF feels it has made so far has not been easy. FI is an emotional issue. In the past it has been criticized as ``elitist,'' because its advocates were upper-middle class parents; this is changing. Early on, CPF ran into anti-French attitudes, some of which still persist in rural areas. (During the '70s, Toronto hockey fans sometimes booed French announcements at games.)

More important, at a time of decreasing overall school enrollment, many English teachers are embittered by a program that means the loss of jobs. School administrators, torn between loyalty to their English teachers and the demand for French immersion, drag their feet in making changes. School boards have often argued the issue to a stalemate.

Some school officials are also concerned about the strain FI will create on the present system. Don Long, a superin tendent in the Wellington district near Toronto, told the Monitor: ``This has come at a time when we are trying to completely upgrade our English school materials.'' French teaching materials -- texts, film strips, tapes, slides, charts, globes, etc. -- are not cheap, he says. Also, ``it is a tremendous challenge to think about managing what lurks in the background as a dual system.''

While each school approaches immersion teaching differently, the norm is for the child to learn entirely in French for kindergarten, first, and second grades. In third grade, English is taught for 1 hour; that becomes 2 hours in fourth grade, and so on, until French and English are equally divided.

Ruth Salomone, an FI teacher in Toronto, says that ``Learning a language is like a musical process. Some children learn it faster than others.'' Early skeptics of immersion charged that children may not develop properly in math and science due to language difficulties.

Extensive testing, however, shows that immersion does not hamper learning. In over 300 studies by OISIE, the results were, as one observer said, ``disgustingly positive.'' It is true that some children lag for a year or two, but they quickly make it up. Today, the lead group of immersion students is in Grade 12, and their test scores are either equal to or higher than their contemporaries in all subjects, including English.

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