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private schools: trilingualism

Michael Habrich put his German-language training to use on a field trip to Europe with his Alexander von Humboldt peers. ‘I could go to Germany and feel completely comfortable.’Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Grade 11 student Michael Habrich is adept at French, which is most associated with being bilingual in Canada, but the Montreal teenager is also equally good at speaking and writing the language of his German-born grandparents, thanks to the novel immersion approaches of many private schools in Canada.

Before he started at Alexander von Humboldt Schule (German International School) in Montreal at 4, Michael knew no German. But the importance of grasping a language outside English and French was driven home when he and his classmates were on a field trip to Germany in Grade 8.

"The big advantage is I could go to Germany and feel completely comfortable around people there," the 17-year-old says. "It was a very good experience being in a German environment – I was forced to speak German, and I feel I got better at it when I was there.

"Having another language is always an advantage, and for me, learning it was all really easy for me. No downfalls."

Michael and his younger brother Matthew, who's in Grade 10, have been at AvH since they started school, following in the footsteps of siblings Katrina, 22, and Andrew, 20, who are now getting top marks at different universities.

Their father, Alex Habrich, an entrepreneur with engineering-related businesses, went to an English public school after his German parents immigrated to Quebec in 1957, but he was intent on having his children educated in German at a private school. Learning the language has kept them in tune with their roots and culture, he says, and knowing several languages gives them educational and career options they wouldn't have otherwise.

"I never formally learned to read or write German – I only spoke it," says Mr. Habrich, who has been on AvH's school board for 15 years and is now president.

"I really wanted my kids to learn my mother tongue, German, and Canada is multicultural. As well, my wife is Chinese and my eldest [daughter Katrina] also learned Chinese because she was taken care of by her grandmother."

AvH, founded in 1980, belongs to a worldwide network of more than 140 schools (including the German International School Toronto) that receive funding and personnel support from the German government. AvH now has about 320 students from preschool (starting at 3) through Grade 12. Although 80 per cent of students finish Grade 12, there's the option of just finishing Grade 11, and then moving on to CEGEP (Quebec's preuniversity program) for two years before postsecondary school.

While AvH attracts a large number of students who already speak German, two-thirds have no background in the language, principal Thomas Linse says. All subjects except English and French are taught in German, making it important that students enrol as early as possible.

Acknowledging that learning three languages may not be suited for every child – "For some, a third language might be too much" – Mr. Linse says the graduation rate at AvH is extraordinarily high.

Research, including from Ellen Bialystok of the psychology department at York University in Toronto, indicates learning more than one language at a young age can help develop skills for understanding different cultures, help in completing linguistic and non-linguistic tasks more efficiently, stimulate mental activity and enhance cognitive abilities.

Among the numerous other Canadian private schools that believe in the powers of teaching students in other languages (other than French) are:

- Calgary French and International School (CFIS), co-educational preschool through Grade 12, with students becoming bilingual in French and English, and proficient in Spanish by the end of high school.

- Socrates School (École primaire Socrates), co-educational kindergarten through Grade 6 school in Quebec, with a French, Greek and English immersion program at campuses in Montreal, Laval, West Island and the South Shore.

- Bialik Hebrew Day School, co-educational kindergarten through Grade 8 in Toronto, with the Jewish studies program teaching students to value their Jewish heritage within a Canadian context, and Hebrew immersion a central focus.

- The Giles School, co-educational, non-denominational school offering preschool through Grade 8, and an enriched French immersion program with introduction of English and Mandarin in Grade 1.

At CFIS, founded in 1969, Spanish became a focus in the past decade, given the global economy and the high number of Hispanic families in the Calgary area, head of school Margaret Dorrance says.

"Spanish has been very popular, and part of the reason is economic," she says, pointing to the Alberta oil industry's dealings with South America. "It's also easy to acquire Spanish because it's a romance language like French – students don't have to learn a different syntax – and it's spoken on a wide band of the world."

Ms. Dorrance says travelling to Spanish-speaking countries is an integral part of CFIS – Grade 9 students go to Costa Rica, and there are also trips to parts of the world including Colombia and Peru, for instance – "so students get to learn their language in an authentic environment. ... They're able to communicate well but pick up that colloquial language, too, and not just the classroom language."

Tips for parents

Parents thinking of enrolling their children in a private immersion school – especially if it teaches a language outside English and French – should understand its approach and how children acquire another tongue, says Margaret Dorrance of Calgary French and International School (CFIS).

"Learning a second language has much in common with learning one's first language," says Ms. Dorrance, head of school at CFIS, which emphasizes English, French and Spanish. "In both instances, the process begins with listening and speaking, which are later followed by reading and writing."

Ms. Dorrance says a child's IQ, and her knowledge of the basics, play a secondary role to learning another language.

"Children learn through authentic interactions with the environment and important people in their lives. Language and social skills, concentration, memory and adaptability in the face of change also contribute to a child's 'executive functioning,' and research has shown positive executive functioning skills are the foundation upon which academic concepts can be successfully learned."

Ms. Dorrance offers these pointers for parents of immersion children:

- Be involved, give encouragement and be supportive of your child, the teacher and the school.

- Keep in contact with your child's teacher. Read information sent to you by the teacher and the school.

- Talk with your child about her experiences.

- Participate in language activities at home with your child. For example, read in English at bedtime and listen to music in French or another language.

- Explore language radio and television programs.

- Take advantage of local events and events that increase your child's exposure to another language and culture.

- If your child is eager to speak another language at home, be encouraging, but don't force your child to do so. Don't ask your child to dazzle friends or relatives with conversation in another language.

- Don't correct your child if you are uncertain of the pronunciation.