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Is French immersion a better choice for my son than Mandarin classes?

The Question

I am thinking of enrolling my son in French immersion, but I am concerned by some of the comments I hear about the program. Would it be better to sign him up for classes in Spanish or Mandarin, two languages that are growing in the world? And what about math? Will he have trouble in math if it's in French?

The Answer

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French immersion programs are widely available in Canada, but there are no equivalent programs for other languages. Some school districts have introduced Mandarin, for example, but it's not consistently offered. That said, learning one other language can make it easier to learn more down the road. "Cognitively, it makes sense that learning a third language would be easier," said Maria Cristina Cuervo, an associate professor of Spanish and linguistics at the University of Toronto.

Learning a second language, be it French, Mandarin or Spanish, has tremendous academic, social and cultural benefits. Prof. Cuervo said bilingual children are better communicators, and learning a new language trains the brain to suppress irrelevant stimuli and focus on the task at hand.

As for your concerns about math, the Canadian Parents for French said there is no significant difference in math skills between students in French immersion and those in the regular English stream by Grade 3. "Numbers are numbers irrespective of the language," said Robert Rothon, the organization's national executive director.

In any case, the decision is not forever. At the Toronto District School Board, for example, the retention rate for the French immersion stream for kindergarten to Grade 6 students was 70 per cent. But just think: If your son thrives in it, he can open the door to a rich culture.

The Guidance Counsellor is a column that answers reader questions on navigating the education system. Send your questions to guidance@globeandmail.com.

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