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marcus gee

French immersion is a wonderful thing in theory. Plunge kids into French in their early years, when their brains soak up language like a sponge, and they will emerge as confident French speakers. That will be good for them, making them more rounded people and giving them a shot at jobs where being bilingual is an advantage, and good for the country, helping bring the two solitudes of French and English together.

In practice, it hasn't quite worked out that way, for several reasons. First, kids in immersion aren't really immersed. The moment they are out the door and into the playground, they are speaking English, not French. In a city such as Toronto – or Edmonton or Vancouver or just about anywhere outside of Quebec – there just aren't that many opportunities for most kids to use their French outside of school. Even in the classroom, few teachers can enforce a French-only rule at all times.

Second, it's hard to find French-immersion teachers. The shortage is chronic. Schools scramble to fill immersion teaching posts and end up with a lot of teachers who can't teach, can't speak very good French or can't do either.

Third, many students drop out of immersion as the years pass, some because they aren't thriving in the French stream, others because they are going to specialty schools that don't offer immersion. Even those who stay often don't acquire good French. A surprising number do French for the whole 13 years, from senior kindergarten to Grade 12, and still can't have more than a halting French conversation when they graduate.

I've seen three kids through immersion in Toronto. One stayed in all the way to graduation and came out with decent French that has been an asset in his career, but his success owes a lot to the term he spent in France on an exchange in Grade 10. That was real sink-or-swim immersion and it worked. The other two left the French stream after Grade 8 to attend an arts school.

They all had some good teachers along the way. There was Monsieur F., a gruff Québécois who wore shorts to class year-round and decorated his classroom from ceiling to floor with masses of student art. Or Madame M., a dynamo with a North African background who taught the no-nonsense French way.

They had some real losers, too. Mademoiselle K. was so awful that parents revolted and she was pushed out, only to pop up at another unfortunate school. It's hard to get rid of a rotten teacher in Toronto schools, especially in immersion, where French speakers are in such demand.

The French immersion stream in the kids' elementary school grew and grew as our West End neighbourhood gentrified. That points to another problem with immersion: It has become a privileged island in the school system, populated disproportionately by kids from better-off families. It is the more educated, more involved parents who tend to choose immersion for their kids, hoping to give them an advantage within the hit-and-miss public system. Immersion classes tend to be whiter than the norm, with fewer students from immigrant families. In some schools, people come to view the English stream as second-rate, a place where poorer kids or kids who struggle in school end up. It's the kind of division that a multicultural city that prizes equality wants to avoid.

You can't blame parents for wanting the best for their children. You can't blame school boards for wanting to accommodate them either. The goal of French immersion – to give more students command of the country's other official language – is still a noble one. Knowing a second or third language, a commonplace for Europeans, is an obvious asset in the age of globalization (though Mandarin might be a smarter choice). All my kids say that, whatever the ups and downs of immersion, it gave them a good grounding in French and broadened their horizons.

But the whole program needs a good hard look. Enrolment in immersion is soaring. School boards are struggling to meet the demand. It's a good time to examine whether it is working as it should.

As The Globe's Caroline Alphonso reported this week, one board, in Halton Region west of Toronto, is thinking about delaying entry into immersion till Grade 2 and having kids learn French the whole day instead of half when they start. That way, officials hope, parents will think more seriously about whether to put their kids in the program. It's a sensible idea that could help ease the bandwagon effect – gotta do it or my kid will lose out – that is overwhelming boards.

French immersion can be great for kids. It could be a lot better with a dose of realism and critical thinking.