French immersion programs face high demand, challenges

More than 30 per cent of students in every province outside of Quebec were enrolled in some form of French as a second language program in the 2010-2011 school year, the advocacy group Canadian Parents for French says.

5.8M Canadians said in 2011 that they could conduct a conversation in French and English

Dylan Roberts, who attends the French high school Monseigneur de Charbonnel, poses for a photo as he works on the computer with his mother Lynda Rinkenbach at their Toronto home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

When Shannon Nelson decided to enroll her daughter in French immersion 17 years ago, she expected a long and arduous hunt: the isolated northern Alberta community of Grand Prairie, after all, hardly seemed a likely hotbed of second-language education.

To her surprise, she found not one, but two such programs — thriving, robust and eager to welcome her daughter. Today, as Nelson's youngest child prepares to tackle high school, immersion options in Canada's second official language are broader than ever.

The original programs have been expanded to accommodate a wider range of students, while a new program specifically for children of francophone families is now in high demand.

Nearly 10 million people reported being able to speak French in 2011, up slightly from 2006 but down as a proportion of the Canadian population, Statistics Canada said Wednesday in the latest tranche of data from last year's census.

The number of people who said they could conduct a conversation in both official languages climbed to 5.8 million last year, an increase of 350,000 people. However, the bulk of the increase emanates from a spike in the number of people in Quebec for whom French is their mother tongue, the agency said.

Decline outside of Quebec

Indeed, outside Quebec, "bilingualism declined slightly," the agency reported. "The largest decreases were recorded in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, where in each case, the bilingualism rate decreased by half a percentage point."

Nonetheless, said Nelson, the desire to pass the language on to the next generation seems to show no signs of slowing down.

"We are growing to the point where we're looking at new schools to build in order to accommodate the amount of students that are registering in French immersion," she said.

Parents are drawn to the program for many reasons, she said, adding she and her husband were convinced their children would not develop a full appreciation of their native country without the ability to communicate in both official languages.

Parents who opt for immersion, one of many available French as a Second Language programs, relish the idea that their kids will be taking in the provincial curriculum in both English and French simultaneously.

The idea has broad national appeal, according to figures from advocacy group Canadian Parents for French. More than 30 per cent of students in every province outside of Quebec were enrolled in some form of French as a second language program in the 2010-2011 school year, the organization said.

Executive director Robert Rothon said the numbers paint only a partial picture of the national demand, which he said has been steadily increasing for years.

"Generally speaking, demand is higher than the numbers would indicate because a lot of children get turned away, or a lot of communities don't get the programs that parents are requesting from the school district," Rothon said.

Indeed, Nelson said parents find themselves contending with a growing list of frustrations as their children proceed through the system.

A heady sense of exclusivity that can define the early days of a child's enrolment can sometimes make French programs seem like a private education system within the public infrastructure, but it doesn't take long before reality sets in, she said.

The number of immersion classrooms decreases with each passing year, leaving parents to grapple with sometimes insurmountable scheduling and transportation challenges.

Worse, Nelson said, is the fact that the system has not been modernized to cope with the diverse needs of today's students, many of whom want to pursue more vocation-oriented courses that don't fall in line with the more traditional focus of most second-language programs.

"The system has kind of painted itself into a corner because they're only offering academic courses, and students have to make choices about what they're going to do," Nelson said.

"Some kids just don't want to do the academic stream. Maybe they're going to be a mechanic. Maybe they're going to work in the oilpatch. But that doesn't preclude them from expanding their language learning. And in fact, for some of those students, especially if they're going to work overseas, having a second language is fabulous and very helpful for them."

Leaving the system

Attrition dogs the French education system across Canada, Rothon said, adding only one in four children who enter the system in kindergarten will still be there on high school graduation day.

Many parents opt to take their children out of the system for fear of not being able to help them with homework as they progress, he said. Caregivers are also troubled by the lack of national standards in place to help them assess their children's progress.

"If you send your child to an English-as-a-first-language program, it's naturally assumed that they're going to do well or they're going to come out reasonably literate, reasonably grammatically correct in their oral expression. Because it's a second language, there tends to be a very different set of expectations," Rothon said..

"In terms of curricula, standards, etc., it's more or less the Wild West."

For francophone families who want to see their children enrolled in one of the country's French-only schools, attrition is part of a vicious cycle that helps keep demand at sky-high levels.

When Lynda Rinkenbach's son enrolled in grade 7, he found himself commuting two hours a day in order to attend Toronto's only francophone Catholic school.

Rinkenbach said the situation came as a rude awakening, since her son and other children of French-speaking families had many local options available when they were in elementary school. But that variety created a bottleneck, she said, adding the dearth of francophone middle and high schools meant the system simply couldn't cope with the constant influx of students who wanted to continue their french-language education into higher grades.

Rinkenbach said failing to address this shortfall results in squandered resources and blighted opportunities for the children who could reap the endless benefits of a bilingual education.

"There are more job opportunities that are available," she said, adding French skills allow her children to communicate with their relatives in Quebec and connect more meaningfully with other cultures.

Nelson said she agrees: despite the headaches she endured as her three children worked their way through the system, she said she'd enroll them again "in a heartbeat."

"My son, last summer, said, 'I want to thank you for putting me in French immersion, it's really opened my eyes,"' she said.

"They can read poetry in French, they can go to a bar, they can navigate, plus they're not afraid of difference."