Nothing is cuter than tiny tots speaking French. Their accents are impeccable. Their vocabulary is much larger than mine. I took French for years, and I can barely order lunch. These children are formidable! No wonder Canadian parents have gone crazy for French immersion. Who wouldn't want to raise a bilingual kid? Across the country, demand is soaring through the roof. Schools are scrambling to cope. In some districts, 25 per cent of the primary-school kids are in French immersion. School officials say there would be far more if they could only find more teachers.
Just one problem. Well, several, actually. For many parents, French immersion is a way to game the system. It filters out the kids with behavioural problems and special needs, along with the low achievers. In short, it's a form of streaming. Most French-immersion students are from affluent, high-achieving families that work hard to give their children an edge. And who can blame them? It sure beats forking over $27,220 a year for the Toronto French School (and that's for kindergarten).
Unfortunately, this selfish but entirely natural parental tendency is at total odds with the gospel of the Canadian school system, which strives to be equal and inclusive above all else. For schools, "streaming" is a dirty word. We are constantly assured that high-performing kids actually do better in classrooms that include all those other kids. And vice versa.
This tension between the school boards and the parents has created an impossible dilemma. Some schools' English-language programs are being hollowed out. In dual-track schools, they now have a much bigger ratio of disadvantaged, behavioural, etc. kids than the French programs do. The schools are being accused of entrenching inequality. As one immersion advocate told Maclean's, "If we're going to offer this program, how can we justify it if we don't give kids – from whatever background – the tools they need to succeed?"
What to do? Some school boards (Ottawa-Carleton, for example) have decided that the answer is to give everybody a little bit of French immersion in kindergarten, to see if they like it. The students will be only semi-immersed. But at least everyone will be equal.
French immersion was born during the age of Trudeau the First. The vision was of a bilingual nation, where citizens would be fluent in a second language. It was both inspiring and patriotic – part of a nation-building effort that would bind us together and broaden our horizons. Most Europeans manage to speak at least two languages, so why can't we? On top of that, research seemed to show that speaking a second language has significant cognitive benefits. Bilingualism makes you smarter! Today, the idea of French immersion as a magic smart pill is virtually unquestioned.
Sadly, there's not the slightest shred of evidence that French immersion has accomplished any of its lofty goals. After 40 years of ever-expanding immersion programs, the percentage of Canadians who can speak both official languages has dropped. At two of the Greater Toronto Area's largest school boards, half of French-immersion students bail out by Grade 8. By the time they graduate high school, only 10 per cent achieve proficiency in French (which is not the same as fluency).
The reasons for this miserable success rate are no mystery. Their entire world outside the classroom immerses kids in English. They play in English. They live in English. Everybody they know speaks English. If you want them to be bilingual, you'd better take them to live in France or Quebec – or at least make sure you're married to a French speaker.
The downsides to French immersion, though seldom mentioned, are also real. Kids who struggle with English will also struggle with French – and who needs that? Dual-track schools create separation, not cohesion – immigrant kids (who normally do not enroll) against Canadian-born ones, girls against boys (many of whom drop out). For an unvarnished account from a parent, read what Emma Waverman (who also writes a cooking column for The Globe) had to say in Today's Parent. Among her discoveries: The programs aren't very good. In the early years, they focus on rote memorization of vocabulary lists. Brighter kids are likely to get bored. Not all the teachers are terrific either.
Yet the dream lives on. As enrolment shrinks, school boards are desperate to keep parents happy so that they don't defect from the public system. Like all-day kindergarten – which was also supposed to make kids smarter – French immersion turns out to be too good to be true. But too many people have too much invested in it to say so.