“We’re now seeing a generational transition,” Mr. Rothon said. “It hasn’t really been documented yet. Once we start seeing its extent we should start to see it influencing government policy.”
Mr. Rothon said the children of immersion are creating something like a new linguistic category. They go home to environments where one or two parents are capable of speaking French with them and helping with their homework. It’s not the same as living in an easily defined anglophone or francophone environment, yet it still represents a change from earlier generations. By choosing to continue with French immersion into a second generation, these families are saying, “This is part of how we grew up and this is who we are as Canadians,” Mr. Rothon said.
Ms. Kavanagh has so immersed herself in French that these days she is often mistaken for a francophone. While her father was interested in French, her level of involvement in her children’s education is clearly at a different level. She is capable of correcting their grammar and usage and they don’t cringe or recoil when she speaks to them in another language.
She said her husband, who graduated from a regular stream, was easily convinced that French immersion would be best for their kids. He was persuaded by research that demonstrates its advantages for brain development and memory, as well as the way a second language can broaden horizons. He also saw the advantages she had in applying for jobs when she was a student, when she found high paying work, first at the City of Winnipeg, then at VIA Rail and a Parks Canada historic site, in large part because of bilingualism.
“I am a big believer because I think it’s a painless way to learn another language,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “Even if they come out and are only able to understand it, rather than speak it, that’s still a big advantage.”
Many immersion students lose their French over time, a fact often cited by critics. Attrition rates are high. Every year, most schools lose 5 to 10 per cent of their immersion students in each grade, so by Grade 12, the class that started together a dozen years earlier will be considerably reduced in size. It’s also clear from Statistics Canada data that hard-won bilingualism tends to decline in the years after graduation. On the 1996 census,16.3 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 said they were bilingual. Fifteen years later on the 2011 census only 9.6 per cent of that cohort still considered themselves bilingual, according to Environics Analytics.
Justin Lee, a French immersion student at York House school in Vancouver in the mid-1970s, said he and his wife were thrilled when they won a lottery to get their children into French immersion at Henry Hudson Elementary School in Vancouver.
They moved back to Canada from the U.S. specifically so their children could attend Canadian schools. But their interest in French had nothing to do with Canadian identity or the ideal of bilingualism and everything to do with educational advantage, he said.
“It’s part of the public school system, so it’s free. We thought it was sort of a no-brainer,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re both big believers in being able to speak multiple languages.”
Mr. Lee’s own parents, originally from the U.K., chose French immersion for him because they didn’t think the Canadian school system was sufficiently demanding, he said. And he thinks it’s amazing that so many people in North America only learn a single tongue.
Lori Chang-Foidl’s family spoke Cantonese at home in Calgary in the 1970s. Her parents were immigrants from Macau and Trinidad, and though neither spoke French they believed that their children, born into a bilingual country, should learn both languages, she said. When her own daughter was born the first thing she did was start looking for a French immersion school. Today her daughter is pursuing French as part of a double major at university.
“I don’t know of any parents of [French immersion] students who have regretted the decision to enroll them in a bilingual program. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why parents are hesitant or negative towards the idea,” Ms. Chang-Foidl said.
- Record number: More than 342,000 students attended immersion programs in elementary and secondary schools in 2011 – an all-time high number, compared to 45,000 in 1977; 300,000 in 1992; and 318,000 in 2000.
- On the 1996 census, 16.3 per cent of those aged 15-19 said they were bilingual; 15 years later in 2011, only 9.7 per cent of that cohort, now aged 30-34, said they were bilingual, according to Environics Analytics.
- The retention rate in 2011 for French-immersion students from kindergarten to Grade 6 in the Toronto District School Board was 70 per cent.