Zuzana Ben Lassoued, a musicologist and Mississauga, Ont., mother of two, registered her sons for early French immersion without question.
“To me, it is important to speak other languages, especially in Canada, which is already a bilingual country,” says Zuzana. “My grandfather always said: ‘How many languages you speak – that’s how many times you are a human.’ I speak six languages and I can see the benefits of it. I want to give my kids the same opportunity.”
It seems an increasing number of parents would agree. “We’ve seen a steady increase in interest in French immersion in the last five years,” says Pat Stellick, co-ordinating principal for the Elementary Peel District School Board in Ontario. “About 25 percent of our Grade 1 population is now enrolled in French immersion.”
Pat says the benefits of early immersion (which starts in Senior Kindergarten or Grade 1 depending on where you live) are numerous, from learning the French culture, getting a sense of Canada’s bilingual and bicultural heritage, to appreciating the value of learning another language.
And yet, for many parents, the decision to enroll their child in early French immersion can be fraught with anxiety. Parents wonder how it will affect their child when it comes to learning English. They ask themselves, what if we don’t speak French at home? How will I support my child’s studies? What if my child doesn't like it?
Julia Johnson*, a Toronto engineer and mother of Christina*, 6, said no to early French immersion for those very reasons. “Christina’s a November baby and, though she has a very high vocabulary and excellent speaking skills, she had not shown an interest in reading on her own before Grade 1. We were worried that she would fall behind even more in English reading if we switched to French,” says Julia.
Students who excel in French immersion seem to have certain characteristics. “They tend to be risk-takers,” says Pat. “They enjoy talking, they like to work in groups, they imitate easily, they are very confident, they enjoy books, they enjoy new challenges, and they've already had a successful transition from home to school.” Pat also encourages parents to talk to their child’s teacher to make sure that what parents see at home is similar to what teachers see at school. “Teachers can give you a different perspective,” she says.
On the other hand, there are some red flags, too, says Pat. “If there’s a disagreement in the family about the program; if children are going to be absent from school for an extended period of time; if children have struggled with the transition to school, it may not be the right time just yet. Children develop at all kinds of rates.” Waiting for a later entry point, Core French or Late Immersion, might be in the better interest of your child. It’s not a now or never decision, says Pat.
That was Julia’s take on it. She felt that with core French offered in Grade 4, they were in no particular hurry. “I didn’t have French until I was in Grade 9 and because I was so interested in it, did very well and travelled to France on my own, speaking French,” she says. “If a child wants to learn a language, let them choose the language and time.”
*Name has been changed.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2014.