In the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, where scarcely anyone speaks English, the high-school pass rate for English as a Second Language has soared to 94 per cent.

Educators at the Lac-Saint-Jean school board are crediting the mandatory Grade 6 intensive English program introduced into all 21 elementary schools in the region in 2003.

The first group of students to take part in the 5-month intensive program are now graduating from high-school and the principal at Ecole Monseigneur Victor, in Métabetchouan, Que., says the results of their compulsory English exams are nothing short of 'spectacular.'

"In 2007, the rate of success was 65.4 per cent," said René Simard. "In 2010, we have a 94 per cent success rate," he said.

Quebec looking to expand program

Premier Jean Charest has said he wants to introduce the program across Quebec, which means all Grade 6 students would spend half the year learning English but Leif French says that would take a substantial investment.

The professor at l'Université du Québec à Chicoutimi is an expert in English as a Second Language and has studied the impact of the pilot project in Lac-Saint-Jean on students' academic performance.

The challenge for the government, said French, is going to be finding enough English as a Second Language teachers to carry out its objectives.

"Across Quebec, only 18 per cent of English as a Second Language teachers have received training for the intensive program," said French.

Another concern, he said, is that a recent poll showed that only 80 per cent of teachers in the program said they were competent in spoken and written English.

French said they need to be proficient to teach English five hours a day, especially when they are often the only English speakers the students meet.

Critics, including the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, one of Quebec's largest nationalist organizations, worry the program will threaten the French language.

But French said studies have shown the opposite is true. "We continue to learn to read and write in French as a first language," he said.

"In fact, I think some researchers would say if we looked at it more closely, that there are benefits of intensive English in the fact that it may actually raise students' awareness of the different possibilities of language, including their own."

After five months of full-time English classes Eric, a Grade 6 student at Ecole Monseigneur Victor, has already found one benefit; a secret language

"I speak English with my brother, so my parents cannot understand what I say," he said.

The suggestion that the English they are learning now could hurt their mother tongue down the line strikes some Grade 6 students at the school as funny.

"Of course not. We won't forget. That's funny."