Five years ago, Deborah Petriuk of Calgary bundled up her two daughters, hopped on a plane, and took the girls and herself to Paris. It turned out she needed them to manoeuvre around the City of Light almost as much as they needed her.
Walking into a downtown shop, Ms. Petriuk, who speaks little French, found herself trying to cobble together a question for the salesperson – with little success. Yet within moments, the girls stepped in and explained what their mother wanted. In French. With flawless Parisian accents.
Her daughters, Charlotte and Louisa, were just six and four years old.
"I'm sure the shopkeeper was wondering if I'd kidnapped the kids. How could I, with this absolutely brutal accent, have these two little children who were speaking perfect French?" she says now with a laugh.
Ms. Petriuk's story is just one example of how learning French at one of Canada's independent French schools can lead to worlds of opportunity. And now that her children are settling into the new school year, she's convinced that choosing a private school, the Lycée Louis Pasteur, over the public French immersion offering was the best choice for her family.
It's a sentiment shared by many other similar families, says Anne-Marie Kee, the executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools in St. Catharines, Ont.
"Independent schools have a mandate to go above and beyond the provincial requirements. There's an environment where learning is exciting," she says.
In some cases, that mandate can be traced back to France itself. The Calgary school is part of the French Lycée system, in which children start full-time learning aged three. Not only must the school meet Alberta's education requirements, but it must follow the French curriculum as well.
The result? Extra learning opportunities that give students an education that looks well beyond Canada's own borders, says John Godfrey, headmaster for the Toronto French School. Established in 1962, his school also teaches the French Lycée set of courses and offers a mandatory International Baccalaureate diploma program for high school students. Rather than simply translating Ontario's curriculum into French, as the public French immersion system does, Mr. Godfrey says his school offers a much more comprehensive French experience.
"We're teaching the language, but we're also teaching the cultural surround. The kids have a different kind of cultural experience, not just a different linguistic one," he says.
Katherine Nikidis, head of school at Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's, a private school for girls in Montreal offering French immersion, agrees.
"We're able to really focus on the cultural aspect of the language. We don't treat French as a class. We treat French as a culture," she says, mentioning that students go to French theatre, listen to French music and are encouraged to watch French television.
The distinction can be quite subtle, but can have lasting results. For instance, the traditional culture of the French system places huge importance on neat handwriting.
"It sounds very old-fashioned in an era of laptops, but we think that fine motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination confer all kinds of unintended benefits," says Mr. Godfrey.
Indeed, one recent study from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., seems to prove his point. It claims that handwriting has psychological health benefits for children, including increased brain activity and better memory skills. Students with neater handwriting also seem to get better grades than those churning out chicken scratches.
Handwriting aside, Mr. Godfrey says there are even more interesting studies that look at how bilingualism hardwires brains differently. The school's own students in Grades 2 and 5 are part of one such study, conducted by Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University. Over the years, she has found that those who speak more than one language are able to complete linguistic and non-linguistic tasks more quickly.
For instance, consider the optical illusion image that looks like either a vase or two faces in profile, depending on how it's viewed. Bilingual people can switch between the two images more easily; their brains are better with abstract concepts.
"That's a hugely important skill in the 21st century for understanding different cultures. You're dealing with ambiguity," says Mr. Godfrey.
Combining the provincial and French systems seems to be successful at producing not only truly French-speaking children, but also students who earn high marks. At the Toronto French School, every one of their 69 high school graduates in 2010 were Ontario Scholars, earning averages of over 80 per cent, and 75 per cent of the students earned averages of 90 per cent or higher. Calgary's Lycée Louis Pasteur boasts similar results.
While part of the reason for such high academic results is no doubt attributed to socio-economic factors, independent French-school success goes a long way to alleviating many parents' fears. The most typical question – How will I help my children with homework? – soon goes away. Children get extra help at school. Some schools even offer French classes for parents that go over some of the most common words that pop up in homework exercises.
Ms. Petriuk is taking a French class, but says she rarely needs to help her girls with their homework anyway.
"My kids want me nowhere near their homework. They don't need me. They're just practising what they learn at school," she says.
Head of the Calgary school Hervé Gagliardi says the fact that most parents who send their kids to independent French schools tend not to be bilingual themselves has another added benefit: less cheating. "You have to support your kids, of course, but we don't need the parents to do the homework for their kids."
Special to The Globe and Mail