by Aaron Hutchins
November 14, 2022

Just say ‘non’: The problem with French immersion

French immersion—meant to inspire national unity—has turned into an elitist, divisive and deeply troubled system

Hannah Spencer isn’t the kind of mom who leaves anything to chance. When she wasn’t keen on her child attending the English-only school in their zone of Salmon Arm, B.C., preferring her daughter study French immersion at Bastion Elementary, she sent out her husband, Cody, one Saturday night in 2012 to wait by the district’s education centre to check if anyone had lined up already. With limited enrolment, registration was first-come, first-served and Cody was early. Sign-up started on Wednesday.

“We heard about other years with the lineup forming and finishing within an hour,” Hannah says. “If you didn’t get there fast enough, you would miss out.”

Cody slept in the family vehicle that night and the police noticed him parked outside the centre. When he told the officer of his wife’s request, the response was apt: The officer called a few RCMP colleagues, who also wanted their kids enrolled in French immersion, and warned them the lineup was imminent. When Cody decided to start the line around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, right next to him was a local RCMP parent.

Pretty soon, the news had spread to Chantelle Prentice, 25 km away in Enderby, B.C. Looking at the Fraser Institute’s elementary school rankings, she figured the two top schools her son could attend were Bastion Elementary or the private school King’s Christian, but the latter wasn’t ideal for the non-religious family. The only way to get her son into her school of choice was to sign him up for French immersion—and quick. “The anxiety level was huge,” Prentice remembers. “When I was driving into Salmon Arm, I should have got a speeding ticket.”

Prentice arrived at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, three days before registration opened, and was the seventh parent in line for the 17 kindergarten openings. By 5:50 the following morning, all the spots were spoken for. That’s if everyone stuck around. Only a family member was allowed to relieve someone from waiting.

This was especially stressful for Hannah Spencer, who covered 13 hours of waiting during the day while her husband was at work. She was nine months pregnant with their third child and hoping the baby could wait until at least Thursday. After all, if she got her first daughter, Alyvia, into the French immersion program, her younger son Pierce and the then-unborn baby could later enroll automatically without the wait. “We camped out for three days,” she says. “That’s only a day per kid.”

French-English bilingualism rates may be on the decline in Canada, but when it comes to getting kids into French immersion programs—which have come to be seen by many as a free private school within the public school system—there is nothing, it seems, that a Canadian parent won’t do.

Alyvia is now in Grade 2 and loving French classes. But for every student who graduates from French immersion, there’s at least one other who has been bumped out of the program and put into an English-only stream that many deem inferior. Well-meaning parents may feel that French immersion is the answer for every child. In reality, it has become an elitist, overly restrictive system, geared to benefit a certain type of student.

Decades worth of French immersion studies can testify to its benefits. Children learn another language without any detrimental effect to their English skills. Working memory, used in activities like math, is improved, especially among those aged five to seven. Even reading scores in English are significantly higher for French immersion students than non-immersion students, according to a 2004 study, which noted the higher socio-economic background of French immersion students alone could not account for the stark difference.

Plus, there are the added work opportunities later in life, not to mention better pay. Outside Quebec, bilingual men earn on average 3.8 per cent more than their unilingual counterparts, according to a 2010 study out of the University of Guelph. Bilingual women, meanwhile, earn 6.6 per cent more on average. Within Quebec, those numbers are even more pronounced. Given those figures, it’s easy to understand the mania surrounding immersion.

In 1977, more than a decade after French immersion’s introduction, the program enrolled 45,000 students across the country. That number steadily increased to more than 342,000 students by 2011. “I’m not even sure that number even accurately reflects what the real demand is, because the constraint on availability is classroom spaces, teachers and resources,” says Lisa Marie Perkins, former national executive director of Canadian Parents for French, a non-profit volunteer advocacy group. “If there weren’t things like lotteries and caps, I think you’d actually see the numbers being greater.”

Pierre Trudeau had a vision of a unified, bilingual country when he pushed for the first Official Languages Act, which passed in 1969, but the school system has not kept up with the challenge. A dearth of French teachers causes school divisions to spend extra resources on the hunt for those who are qualified; community schools get uprooted if they push out the English program to make it French immersion-only; and the program loses a staggering number of students.

“What a program like French immersion does is it siphons off those kids who have engaged families who make sure the kids do all their homework,” says Andrew Campbell, a Grade 5 teacher in Brantford, Ont. “Because of that, the opportunities in the rest of the system are affected because the modelling and interaction those kids would provide for the other kids in the system aren’t there anymore.”

The immersion program creates division along lines of gender, social class and special needs students, wrote a 2008 study from the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy looking at French immersion in New Brunswick. Girls are more likely to be enrolled than boys and the French stream has fewer kids in need of extra help. All things being equal in New Brunswick, every class—French or English—should have 3.4 students with special needs. But when a school offered French immersion, the average number of special needs students ending up in the English stream was 5.7. This kind of segregation is not unique to that province.

The richer the family, the more likely their kids will be immersed in French, according to figures from a Toronto District School Board study. In 2009-10, 23 per cent of all French immersion students came from families in the top 10 per cent of income. Meanwhile, only four per cent of French immersion students came from the bottom 10 per cent of family income.

“The program is open to lots of people, but it gets whittled down,” says Nancy Wise, a French immersion educational consultant and former special education teacher in the York region, just outside Toronto. “If you can’t cut it, you probably fall into one of these categories: [you’re a] new Canadian, this is your third language, you’ve got some learning challenges, or there’s a socio-economic factor. They jump on it in the schools and show them the door—and it’s just not right.”

Photograph by Mikael Kjellstrom

Over the past 20 years, on average approximately 235,000 immigrants have come to Canada each year, and more than 80 per cent of them speak neither French nor English as a native tongue, according to Statistics Canada. One-third of allophone students—those whose mother tongue is neither French nor English—reported their school discouraging their enrolment in a French second-language education, according to a 2008 study commissioned by Canadian Parents for French.

“New Canadians, or those who speak languages other than English at home, are told something along the lines of: ‘English is enough of a challenge for you and your family. Why don’t you stick to the English language program?’ ” Wise says. “There’s no research evidence to support that kind of discouragement.” But it happens.

In Vancouver last year, more than 34 per cent of kindergarten to Grade 7 students in the English core program were ESL students, according to data obtained by the Vancouver Sun. For French immersion, ESL students accounted for two per cent of the classes. Vancouver students with special needs, meanwhile, accounted for eight per cent of enrolment in the English-only stream last year; French immersion had lower than half that percentage.

“The special ed people who can handle those with learning challenges are far fewer in French immersion schools—and that’s because of the disproportionate number of children with those needs in English,” Wise says. “It all goes round and round and we keep perpetuating this elitist characterization of French immersion.

“If we’re going to offer this program,” she adds, “how can we justify it if we don’t give kids—from whatever background—the tools they need to succeed?” For all of French immersion’s successes among its pupils, when it comes to embracing all Canadians, the system is far from incroyable.

If registration into French immersion is limited, who gets in? “I do think it’s unfair—and I also think it’s not unfair—to do this lineup thing [in Salmon Arm],” Chantelle Prentice admits. “Who can take three days off work? What are you going to do with your children?”

Fortunately, this year’s crop of parents are in luck in the small B.C. town. Bastion Elementary won’t have parents wait in line for French immersion registration for the first time in its history. With more early immersion spots than parents who showed up to an information night—thanks in part to a smaller group of younger siblings this year who receive automatic enrolment—parents were all allowed to register their kids on the spot. (That’s not to say the lineup won’t return in the future, nor are other districts in the clear.)

Other school divisions register over the phone to avoid the annual sit-and-wait, though parents inevitably find ways to better their odds with tactics like “calling parties,” which involves multiple family members flooding the enrolment centre’s phone lines at the same time once registration opens. A lottery system, while evening the odds, boils down a child’s opportunity at French immersion to the luck of the draw. And it’s not always an unlucky two or three left out. At École Whitehorse Elementary, in the Yukon this year, there were enough kindergarten students on the wait list for French immersion to fill up an entire classroom.The territory’s education minister has promised to find them all room.

Greg Doyle, a Grade 7 French immersion teacher at Graham Creighton Junior High School in Dartmouth, N.S., conducts a French class Monday, December 9, 2002.

In some districts, however, there is no cap on enrolment, but that’s causing other headaches. In the Halton school district in Burlington, Ont., Margo Shuttleworth’s two boys are very happy studying French at Pineland Public School, but she’s not so thrilled with the school’s recent conversion to a single-track French immersion program to keep up with demand. Neighbours who wanted to see their toddlers one day study in the English-only stream no longer have Pineland as an option. “They’re taking a walk to school away from the communities who live here and busing them to another school, so they can bus other children into school for French immersion,” she says. “I don’t think French immersion should take precedence over a community school.”

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg’s south district, enrolment at the French immersion-only École LaVérendrye is “bursting at the seams,” says Winnipeg School Division board chairman Mark Wasyliw. The school was built for 300 students, but is projected to have more than 360 students come September. “Music rooms, art rooms, all those things you take for granted in a modern school system, they’ve all been converted into classrooms,” Wasyliw adds. “It’s affecting programming. These kids aren’t getting the quality and level of education they need.”

One solution can be found a few blocks away at the century-old Earl Grey School, which has fewer than 250 students enrolled but can accommodate a few hundred more. Some parents at LaVérendrye are lobbying for a school swap. Students at Earl Grey could easily fit within LaVérendrye’s walls, while LaVérendrye’s student population could continue to grow in Earl Grey’s building. Simple switch, right? It’s not.

“Earl Grey, demographically, is poor,” Wasyliw says, adding it has a lot of students from single-parent families and a high Aboriginal population. It houses a nursery, and there is a community centre next door for at-risk youth. “We move, we lose that proximity to the [community] centre,” says Darryl Balasko, the parent advisory council chair at Earl Grey.

Some Earl Grey parents, meanwhile, have suggested it become a dual-track French immersion school—hosting both French immersion and English-core students—to take some pressure off LaVérendrye’s capacity, but therein lies another problem. “You don’t want the English kids mixing with the French kids because that dilutes the whole purpose of being in an immersion setting,” Wasyliw says.

Yet the dogma of speaking French exclusively in the classroom may hinder some learning opportunites, says Jim Cummins, a University of Toronto professor and expert in second-language acquisition. For example, if a word like accélération comes up in French class, teachers could highlight its similarities to the English word, such as the “-tion” suffix. “It’s not a mortal sin to say: ‘Does this word remind you of anything in English?’ ” Cummins says. “Pointing those things out to students increases their sensitivity to language and increases their competence in both languages.”

In Oakville, Ont., Amanda Lee’s son, Conan, was struggling in early French immersion. The school had little support for him in French, she says, and paying for a tutor at home didn’t help him keep up. By Grade 2, “one of his teachers recommended we pull him out,” Lee says. A year later, they did. “It got to the point where we thought that we were burdening him too much,” she adds. “If he was struggling in two languages then we felt we need to take some of that load off him.”

While Conan’s story may resonate with many parents, research suggests pulling a child from French immersion is not always the solution. “These kids who struggle in school, they do just as well in an immersion program as similar children in a non-immersion program,” says Fred Genesee, a leading researcher on dual-language education at McGill University. “The additional challenge of doing all this in a second language doesn’t seem to be harder for them than doing it in a first language. At the same time, they become bilingual.” In effect, if a child is struggling with math in French, the problem might simply be with math, regardless of the language.

“If French immersion is really that good, let’s offer it to everyone. Let’s put it in every school,” says Campbell, the teacher. “The fact that we don’t do that says something about what the cachet of the program really is.”

The perception of weaker students being filtered into the English-only program then becomes more of an incentive for parents who consider their children among the best and brightest to enroll in French immersion. But at what cost to the English-track schools?

“Kids that are in low-income areas use French immersion as a way to get out of those schools,” Campbell says. “When I taught in Toronto, there were kids who lived in Lawrence Heights who would take a 35-minute [transit] ride to a French immersion school because the parents didn’t want their kids going to a school in that neighbourhood.”

Denise Davy, a mother from Burlington, says she pulled her daughter out of Pineland, where French immersion was prioritized, because the English program was so bad. “There were no supports, nothing available for my daughter who was struggling,” she says. “I’m not against bilingualism,” but she does take issue with “the ripple effect the [French immersion] demand is having on other programs.”

Parents who first enroll their kids in French immersion are quick to boast about their little ones speaking both of Canada’s official languages one day, but odds are they don’t think about their child being one of the many that drop out. “You start out with a school that has five classes in Grade 1, and by the time you hit Grade 8 there are two classes,” says Nancy Wise, the French immersion educational consultant.

For the 2007-08 school year in B.C. public schools, 4,281 Grade 6 students were part of the French immersion program, thanks to an influx of late immersion students. By the time that age group reached Grade 12 last year, approximately 2,230 remained. Meanwhile in New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, of the 1,469 anglophone students that entered early French immersion back in 1995, less than half (only 612) stayed with the program into Grade 12, according to a 2008 report.

From those Grade 12 students who then took an oral proficiency test, 99 per cent achieved at least an “intermediate” score, but only 42 per cent reached the mark of “advanced or higher.” So, what about dreams of fluently bilingual kids with the perfect accents? “I think we were naive,” says Genesee. “It can’t happen if you’re only using a language five hours a day, five days a week for 10 months of the year.”

What happens after high school graduation? Turns out native English speakers living outside Canada’s sole francophone province are rather poor at keeping up their French skills as they get older. In 1996, 15 per cent of 15- to 19-year-old anglophones outside Quebec could conduct a conversation in both of Canada’s official languages. Fast forward 15 years and the bilingualism rate for 30- to 35-year-olds in 2011 was eight per cent.

Many of today’s youngsters are part of Canada’s second generation of French immersion students, the children of those who themselves took French immersion. The first wave, however, didn’t produce a giant pool of French teachers. In Winnipeg, Wasyliw says his division is running out of qualified teachers to keep up with demand. “We’re in the middle of budget discussions now and we’re going to spend money on recruitment teams that will be going to Quebec and eastern Ontario to basically start convincing native francophone teachers to immigrate to Manitoba.”

If only things were perfect in La Belle Province. Last November, when the alternative French class of an English-language high school in Châteauguay, Que., saw three teachers go on parental leaves and a fourth teacher didn’t work out, students were left with the computer program Rosetta Stone as the substitute teacher, with a non-French teacher supervising.

Canada’s French immersion system was once a model for the world, but it now lags behind countries in Europe where the European Union’s “mother tongue plus two” benchmark—hatched during a 2002 summit—set an ambitious goal for students to learn their native tongue plus two foreign languages. In a 2012 survey of 14 European countries, 42 per cent of 15-year-olds could keep up a conversation in at least one foreign language. The European Commission’s goal is to boost that to at least 50 per cent by 2020. The commission also set out to have at least 75 per cent of students in lower secondary education studying at least two foreign tongues by 2020, compared to the 61 per cent at the time of the report.

Credit Europe’s geography, which offers a multitude of cultures and languages in close proximity. Or the Internet and Hollywood for pushing English to the forefront globally. Regardless, Europeans will have plenty more than just one language on their CV in a global economy. According to EU data, more than half of all Europeans are already able to hold a conversation in a second language, while a quarter are able to do so in a third language. Even 10 per cent can keep up a conversation in a fourth language.

“The world is going global and wanting to learn other languages,” says Genesee. “In Canada, we’ve been doing this for 50 years, but rather than expanding these programs, we’re putting a lid on them.”