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Jill Boyd and Ethan Fogler in an English-Mandarin class at The Dalton School in Toronto.

Your child could become strong enough in French to study as a francophone in just two months.

It sounds like an enticing sales pitch, and indeed the headmaster of Macdonald-Cartier Academy, a private junior high school (Grades 7 and 8 only) in Ottawa, notes that new students, even those who have previously had only rudimentary core French or none at all, are able to study as francophones by November of a school year.

But it isn’t a pitch. It’s an example of the evolving thinking among educators about the language-learning capabilities of children.

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“By November, we no longer teach as if it was a French immersion class. We teach as if they were all francophone,” said headmaster Jean Mantha, who founded the school in 1990.

There are various qualifiers, however. As with the application process at many private schools, prospective students at Macdonald-Cartier Academy have to demonstrate a strong aptitude in mathematics and in their first language (English, in the case of most students) in order to be accepted. They have to show a natural desire to learn.

And although Macdonald-Cartier includes some classes in English, the school is a fully French immersive environment, with French spoken most of the time. This obviously turns learning French into much more than just classroom work. It raises the status of the language for the children. It heightens the importance of learning French throughout the day and in their everyday lives. (A small percentage of the students, about 20 per cent, are francophone to begin with.)

Still, there is the old tendency among many parents to see language learning as zero sum. There is the fear that despite the obvious benefits, it might be too much of a burden for their child, that it might hurt his or her overall studies. And even if the student is enrolled in a language program, there may be an anxious moment at the dinner table when the child might remember only the French word for something and momentarily forget the English equivalent. “Look,” the parents fret to themselves, “immersion is only confusing Tabitha!”

Yet, this can also be seen in a positive light.

Language specialists describe word substitution or the blending of languages as code-mixing, which is common in multilingual environments. Fred Genesee, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Montreal’s McGill University and a leading expert on immersion and language study, notes that code-mixing can mean that a child is developing larger language resources, rather than becoming confused. In this case, the child is now able to draw from the new language and use it in place of an English word that was simply momentarily forgotten.

Languages do not occupy distinct silos in the brain, but are inter-dependent, Mr. Genesee said. One language enriches the other. “So, when it comes to reading and writing, if you know how to read and write in one language, you know how to read and write. You don’t have to be taught to read and write from scratch.”

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This suggests that young learners may have far more capacity for learning multiple languages than traditionally believed. “We know this from bilingual kids. They can learn two languages in essentially the same amount of time as monolingual kids learn one. So, there’s probably more capacity there than we give children credit for,” he said. And in fact, a 100-per-cent, monolingual education may be overkill, potentially too much of one language, he has argued.

“And we know that knowledge and meaning are all stored in a common system. So, just because you’ve learned [something] in one language doesn’t mean you can’t access it through the other language,” he said. “Whatever they’ve learned already in English, if it’s relative to any new subjects they’re getting in French, they will bring that knowledge to bear.”

The Dalton School in Toronto, which splits each school day in two, half in English and half in Mandarin, takes the approach that it isn’t simply teaching Mandarin alongside English (many students don’t speak Mandarin at home), but that it is dividing all of its classroom learning and school activities between the two languages. Donna Booth, the school’s principal, emphasizes that this broadens the teaching of Mandarin into all aspects of learning and daily life at the school.

Dalton is a small private school which opened in 2012, with currently about 80 students ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 6 (with Grade 7 to be added to the next school year, and Grade 8 the following year). Most children have started the program at a young age, so they have similar skill in Mandarin. “We have four-year-olds who don’t speak a word of Mandarin [at the beginning of the school year], but by January, they understand all class instructions, and they’re giving back answers,” she said.

“Children don’t translate the way adults do. When we learn a language, our brains move back and forth between the two languages, whereas young children just absorb it. Under the age of 7, they are very accepting of what this word means. They just apply it and accept what the teacher is saying.”

In higher grades, a subject such as math is taught in both languages, but in different ways.

“The children have a 45-minute math period every day in English, that’s just a given. So that we’re not redundant, we’re not going to teach long division in both languages. We’re going to teach long division in English, but we’re going to teach the application and how to use it in Mandarin,” Ms. Booth said.

“So, the basic skill, along with problem solving and so on, in English … But on the Mandarin side, we take what I would consider vocabulary-rich aspects of math: fractions, measurement, data management and probability, where you’ve got a lot of language around the math. That’s what we concentrate on, on the Mandarin side.”

Mr. Mantha at Macdonald-Cartier Academy in Ottawa says the goal at his junior high school is to get to the point where students can flip a switch and change between different languages on the spot.

“To get to that level, you need some effort. Many times the kid knows the French word and knows the English word, but he’ll come out with the English word first. We’ll say, ‘What’s that word in French?’” Mr. Mantha said. So, it’s an environment in which teachers continually correct students on any errant verb conjugation or masculine-feminine noun confusion. “It’s called muscle memory in the brain, and it works.”

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