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WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - September 25, 2013 - Jim and Andrea Kavanagh work with their children Eric, 5, Charlotte,10, and Carolyn, 12, on French homework in their Winnipeg home recently. Friday, January 25, 2013. Andrea Kavanagh went to French Immersion and eventually became a French elementary teacher. There is a rise in French Immersion enrolment and its potential link to the first kids of French Immersion having their own kids in school now. (John Woods for the Globe and Mail) (JOHN WOODS/GLOBE AND MAIL)
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - September 25, 2013 - Jim and Andrea Kavanagh work with their children Eric, 5, Charlotte,10, and Carolyn, 12, on French homework in their Winnipeg home recently. Friday, January 25, 2013. Andrea Kavanagh went to French Immersion and eventually became a French elementary teacher. There is a rise in French Immersion enrolment and its potential link to the first kids of French Immersion having their own kids in school now. (John Woods for the Globe and Mail) (JOHN WOODS/GLOBE AND MAIL)

French immersion enrolment skyrockets as a new linguistic category emerges Add to ...

Andrea Kavanagh is a child of French immersion’s first wave.

Born in the heart of English-speaking Winnipeg in 1971, she was just 10 years old when she rode two buses 30 minutes across town every day to attend the city’s first immersion school. She went on to a French-language college and eventually a career as a French teacher.

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Bilingualism transformed her life. It opened the door to opportunities that would have otherwise passed her by. Now she wants to pass on those same opportunities to her three children, all of whom attend the local French immersion school. They represent a little-studied but growing segment of Canada: French immersion’s second generation.

Over the last five years enrolment in French immersion has skyrocketed across the country. It’s up 12 per cent since 2006, according to new figures from Statistics Canada. And the timing of this jump coincides with the period in which the children of the first cohort to attend French immersion started to arrive at elementary schools.

French immersion began with a single school in Quebec in 1965, but it didn’t really start to spread across the country until the mid 1970s. Manitoba, for example, opened its first immersion school in 1973 at l’école Sacré-Coeur, where Ms. Kavanagh completed Grade 6. By 1977 there were 45,000 students in French immersion in all of Canada, a number that increased by six and a half times over the next 15 years, passing 300,000 in 1991-92.

Numbers have ebbed and flowed slightly since then, but 2011 marks an all-time high of more than 342,000 students in elementary and secondary immersion programs. Even more remarkable, that increase occurred when the number of children in school is declining.

“Right now we seem to be in a general growth pattern. Both B.C. and Alberta have been maintaining a consistent growth rate for 12 or 14 years. Ontario went through a rough patch but is now marking extremely impressive growth rates and Saskatchewan has taken off lately as well,” said Robert Rothon, national executive director of Canadian Parents for French.

“Broadly speaking, demand always outstrips capacity. If school districts had larger capacity you’d see even bigger growth rates.”

In York Region north of Toronto, to take one example, French immersion enrolment has more than doubled over the last decade. In British Columbia, Mr. Rothon said, it’s not uncommon to see parents line up in school parking lots overnight to ensure their child can get a spot. In other districts, coveted slots are awarded via lottery and the unlucky are forced to attend the English stream. Often it’s a lack of capable teachers that restricts the number of immersion places in some districts.

Mr. Rothon said it’s difficult to say whether it’s one factor in particular driving the explosion in demand for immersion.

Anelia Coppes, who lives in Parry Sound, Ont., decided to enroll her son in immersion because his older siblings insisted they had missed opportunities because of their unilingual education. She and her husband were also convinced by something the school’s principal told them.

“One of the things the principal mentioned is that we don’t have enrichment programs, but he said the next best thing is a French immersion program,” Ms. Coppes recalled.

The children in her son’s class tend to be from families with higher levels of education, she added.

“The kids, their parents are doctors, lawyers, university educated. Not all, but the demographics are not the same as the rest of the school.”

She sees that as both a positive and negative, since she wants her son to get along with people from all walks of life. Still, he seems to be thriving, she said.

The first wave of French immersion graduates were hitting their mid-30s in the 2006 to 2001 period when these new statistics were gathered. The average age at first birth in Canada is 28, so their children were likely beginning to arrive at school in the middle part of the last decade. The size of that group isn’t clear, but there is some evidence that French immersion students considered the education they received enough of an advantage to want to pass it on. A 1990 study of an early wave of French immersion graduates in Saskatchewan found that more than 80 per cent said they wanted their children to follow in their footsteps by pursuing immersion.

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