Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why put your child in French Immersion? Points to ponder

As regular visitors know, I like to state my biases up front, so readers will understand a bit about my frame of reference.

I have two children, both of whom attend a French Immersion school. "Buddy", the elder of the two, is going into grade 5. His sister, the Princess Raspberry, is going into senior kindergarten. They both attend the same school, however it should be noted that the kindergarten program is English only. The rest of their school, grades 1-6, is all French immersion.

My son didn't attend a FI school when he was in kindergarten, instead he went to Montessori . The rationale was pretty simple, and while its not easy to admit...the reason was snobbery. My ex-wife and I were of the mindset that the public or Catholic boards, that while they may do a wonderful job, parents are the key to how a child does in school in a majority of cases. And whether public or Catholic, there are parents who view school as a form of daycare.

By enrolling Buddy in a private school we felt assured that the parents of his classmates were very much concerned about learning. Peer pressure counts for a lot, and like many parents we wanted to put our son into a school where he would have the best chances for success.

But when it came time for grade one, we began weighing options. My brother, who's a teacher, suggested French Immersion. Given that I am fairly fluent in the language he said it was a no brainer. Bro said we'd get all the benefits of a private school, without the tuition costs. Obviously parents enrolling their children into a program that will teach them a second language....there's little question about the value they place on education.

We attended an information session at the FI school, and heard their pitch. The principal and some of the teachers presented a very compelling case, and what they talked about is reality.

Firstly, French Immersion is not for every child. School is not just about learning, its a place where children gain social skills, form friendships and learn about life outside of the home. The bottom line though is that children should enjoy themselves at school. Perhaps not all the time, but on balance they should look forward to their days Moday thru Friday, from September to June.

Here are some general guidelines that might prove helpful to parents contemplating whether or not French Immersion is right for their child.

Children who are typically outgoing do better in French Immersion than those who are more introverted. Learning a second language means making mistakes....lots of mistakes. Extroverts tend to be risk takers, while introverts prefer to hang back. But I have seen exceptions, for Buddy's first 3 years I helped out in the classroom once or twice a week with reading...and I know of one very shy and retiring kid who excels.

Is the child excited about learning? From where I sit this is a major factor. Children are far more capable of picking up a second language than adults, their brains are sponges. But if they don't enjoy learning, if the attainment of knowledge doesn't excite them...it could point to problems later.

Another factor is their facility with English. Does the child enjoy language, is book reading a chore or something to be relished? Kids who enjoy tongue twisters and word play will likely be better suited to a FI program.

That's a pretty good starting point, and its one the school shared on orientation night. Students who are outgoing, who enjoy language and reading...and learning in general...there are no assurances of success, however these indicators are a decent barometer. But I'll come back to enjoyment. If after enrolling a child in FI, if he or she hates it...I believe strong consideration should be given to putting her or him into the regular English stream.

For those who think their child might be a good fit...I'll offer up some big advantages.

Some fear that a child learning a second language, that their English will suffer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning a second language enhances an individual's ability in their native tongue. Kids in FI gain an understanding of grammar and syntax that English stream children don't learn about until years later. Constructing sentences in French makes children aware of how the English language works.

In English we typically put adjectives in front of the noun, while in French the noun usually comes first. In English we might say:

"I saw a big, red, ancient...."

You don't know what I'm writing about yet do you? It could be a tree, a car, a building...you don't know.

In French one might say:

"J'ai regardé une maison grande, rouge, vieille".

Some consider French more precise because words that modify a noun come first, making it more clear. As Voltaire said: "Si ce n'est pas claire, ce n'est pas francais".

I don't have the stats at hand, but I've been told that FI immersion students score better on provincial English tests than children in the regular stream by grade 6...and I absolutely believe it.

Buddy speaks English better than many kids in high school, and already is aware when the word "like" is overused.

So like, I hope you're, like enjoying this blog, cause like, you know I like really like writing it.

Another benefit is that students with behavioural problems are practically non-existent. While it may seem unfair, its simply unrealistic to expect a child with attention deficit disorder, (ADD) or other challenges to pick up a second language in an immersion environment. Students in FI are lucky in that their teachers don't have the same degree of problems with student management as in the regular stream.

But English or French, regular stream or immersion...kids should enjoy their time learning. I've seen a number of parents pull their kids from FI for this very reason. One of Buddy's classmates is a hyper over achiever, which irks my son to no end...and a mother who is incredibly supportive. But this classmate has a younger brother, who simply hated going to school. His parents made a wise choice in my opinion. They kept their daughter in FI, and moved their son to an English school...and now he is excelling.

Not everyone has an aptitude for languages, that's reality, it doesn't mean one is smarter than the other. Children should be given every opportunity to explore their talents and to seek achievement in things they find fulfilling.

I'm not a big fan of forcing kids who don't like French into wasting a high school credit learning a few words and phrases they'll forget by the time they turn 16, I wrote about it back in January. But French Immersion is a wonderful program that will enrich their entire lives. It isn't for everyone, no different than something like music, but for those its meant for...its wonderful.

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