Le français, espagnol and English – the three languages I speak, some with more fluency than others. I have developed a passion for language and teaching French is one of the things I love to do.  Born in St. Bruno, Québec, my first language is French.  We moved to Oakville just after I turned 3, so it was the perfect time to learn English.  I learned from my neighbors and most likely from television as well.  My parents were very strict about speaking French at home, I wasn’t allowed to speak to them in English.  This turned out to be a major blessing, since I am fluently bilingual.

As a French teacher and tutor, I am often asked about my opinion regarding the French Immersion system we have here in Ontario.  I can only speak about what I know of the program in Halton District School Board, since that is where my clients attend school.  I have mixed feelings about it.  The value of being bilingual in Canada can not be understated, and it also gave me a chance to work overseas, in Europe.  My education was not in a French Immersion program though, in fact, after kindergarten, I attended English primary and secondary school.  Luckily, I was able to be a part of the French Immersion “French” class, since our core French curriculum (at least at the time) is very basic. My French education came from speaking at home with my parents and also some home schooling from my mom in the early years of school.

A few key factors to think about when looking at language acquisition in children:

  • First, children can start to learn different languages as early as nine months. By the time they start speaking, if they have been exposed to more than one language on a regular basis, they will start to communicate in both.  For example, if you have one parent who speaks French and the other who speaks English to the child, you can start speaking to you child in each language very early, and when they start speaking they will learn to communicate in both.
  • Children learn languages most easily before the age of 8.  From 8 years old on it becomes more and more difficult to acquire a new language. This is one of the reasons why students who are only exposed to Core French starting in Grade 4 (when they are 9 years old) have difficulty retaining much of what they learned.
  • Those children who do grow up in a multi-lingual home have a much better chance of acquiring other languages throughout their lives.  For example, Spanish and French are both romance languages and I had the opportunity to study Spanish for one semester in highschool. Being bilingual in French helped me understand Spanish more quickly and by taking opportunities to speak Spanish throughout my adult life, I have become an intermediate level speaker (and currently part of a Spanish Meet-Up Group to improve).
  • Finally, regular exposure to a language is most important. Many parents have asked me if they should speak French to their children, even if they are not that fluent – my answer is absolutely! Showing children that you have a love for the language as well will help them learn and appreciate the value of learning another language.

Back to the French Immersion debate.  I have my opinions about the quality of teaching, for every fluent teacher you have, you can find one that isn’t.  Yet you could say that about most every subject in school.  Some schools and classrooms are better at enforcing speaking French in class, and some are more lenient.  The bottom line is this:

  • If the student enjoys learning French and is working at grade level in English, French Immersion is a good idea.
  • If the student doesn’t like French and/or is struggling in English or Math, French Immersion may not be a good idea.
  • For those who have French School as an option (i.e. one parent is bilingual), take a closer look, this might be a great option as well. My husband Dan did the opposite of me, he went to French elementary and secondary school, and he is also fluent.
  • Finally, if the student has been in French Immersion for a few years and is still struggling in most subjects and is below grade level, it might be time to look at taking them out of the program.  A French Immersion program can be very stressful for some children, especially as the work becomes more demanding in later years.

There are so many benefits to being bilingual, and that’s one of the reasons I have gone back to teaching.  I love teaching the little kids from ages 3 to 6, it’s such a fun age for language acquisition and they learn so quickly. No matter whether they are put into a French Immersion program or not, the skills they learn at this young age will help them with language acquisition later in life.

Do you have an opinion on the French Immersion program? Did you go through it yourself and are you bilingual? Do you wish you’d had the chance to learn French as a child? Are you struggling with the decision on what program to enroll your children in? Post a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

I used this book as great resource (from the public library) – Raising Multilingual Children, Foreign Language Acquisition and Children, Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey (Book – 2001)

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