Thursday, April 24, 2008

Discuss education and immersion issues fully

By Daylene Lumis For The Times & Transcript

As an early childhood educator (BSc.,and Montessori AMI), semi-retired after 24 years, the mother of two immersion graduates now in their 30s, a person who has lived in three countries, and an avid reader of early human development specialist Dr. Frazer Mustard and many others, this is my perspective. I am also a "come from away", only five years in New Brunswick.

Language(s) is/are "absorbed" easily by virtually all children in the same way they learn their mother tongue. They learn what they hear with precise inflection, syntax and all. They seem to absorb it like a sponge.

By about age six, our minds change, becoming more comparative and associative.

This is the age of asking, "Is Santa real?" Now we compare new information to what we already know. We begin to learn in a different way. The "absorbent" stage of life is gone forever.

Gradually our vocal cords lose some flexibility, so that by about age 12, we will no longer be able to learn to speak another language without some trace of an accent.

Gradually we mature socially in such a way that we are increasingly self-conscious, concerned with making friends and the approval of peers, especially as we approach the teen years. We are afraid of being laughed at, when required to speak in class, in front of friends. These are the hardest years to be learning a new language in a classroom setting.

These are the well researched and also easily observed realities of nature, which we cannot change.

All Chinese children speak just like their parents, and all children born to French or English families, learn these "difficult" languages with ease. (Reading, writing and spelling, of course, is a later stage.) In Moncton, some Acadian children of four or younger can be heard speaking with their parents in French, and then suddenly changing to English, much to their parents' chagrin (and a little mix of pride, perhaps). This is the advantage, or disadvantage in some respects, of the minority.

My experience growing up in rural Michigan, with one year of Spanish in high school, from a book and a teacher who hardly spoke Spanish, was not very useful. In contrast my children, born in Ontario, had the marvellous opportunity to become functionally, if not perfectly, bilingual. Both have benefited from and made use of their French.

My daughter is in a position to hire French-speaking employees. My son, who dropped French Immersion after Grade 8 to focus on entrance requirements for engineering, was soon enough in a co-op workplace in Montreal, where he improved his French. He now lives and works in Switzerland.

These choices would not have been open to them, without a very good start in French. A whole new range of friends, experiences, possibilities and fun opened to them.

My son knows a girl of eight who speaks four languages. Her mother is Spanish, her father Swiss-German, her school French, and some friends English. I have seen many similar situations in recent years.

In Europe, immersion at school has not been implemented, perhaps because, for many, it exists all around them. When people perceive the need and benefit, they are eager to learn.

Canada is a land of diverse opportunities. Why not seek them out and embrace them? It should not cost appreciably more to educate our children in one language than in another. Other problems in our school systems are not caused by French Immersion.

School boards obviously have had problems accommodating the demand for French Immersion. They have obligations to the English (only) speaking teachers already in place. It takes some years of planning to prepare teachers and teacher training to extend French Immersion to the majority who could benefit. Even young children with some learning difficulties will, in many cases, have the same difficulty in any language. If their families moved to Germany or Japan, they would learn the new language before long, with some extra help, similar to what would be required wherever they are.

However, schools cannot be expected to adapt quickly, and especially when they cannot know whether this is just a trial program, which may or may not continue. The long term commitment must be in place. Then, we need not make it elitist, though people must have a choice, for many reasons.

We should also be insisting on Junior Kindergarten, or some early programs for those "head start" advantages, and early assessments. Help given early is critical for the future lives of many.

New Brunswick has some challenges. This is not Ontario, nor even Quebec, which has taken such a lead. But do we realize the real costs of doing so little or nothing for all our small children?

Remediation given too late is more difficult, costly, and less effective. Broken adult lives cost us all in both sadness and real dollars.

On TV, we hear a real estate ad which says, "and there's a French Immersion school just around the corner." Indeed, high quality schools, with attractive programs are a major selling point for any community trying to attract people, especially professional people, and industries, to their town or region. French Immersion programs have become entrenched in many Canadian provinces, where some have been expanding for almost 40 years.

There is a history of experience and research, which has been very positive. Awareness and expectations have increased. I have heard of a doctor planning a move from Nova Scotia to Saint John who is now reconsidering because she would have to remove her children from immersion.

People care a great deal about their children.

It would not be surprising if people in Sackville, especially new faculty coming to Mount Allison, will opt to live a short distance away in Amherst, N.S., because of French immersion opportunities. We must think about repercussions such as these.

The most alarming thing is the apparent rush by the government of New Brunswick to make this decision quickly and to cut short discussion. New Brunswick could benefit immensely by discussions in our communities about, not only French immersion in our schools, but the connections among our rather "apart" communities -- French, English and First Nations.

If we can "twin" with a city half-way around the world, why not also among our communities of different heritage nearby?

We need to brainstorm for ways to all work together in New Brunswick, for a common vision of our future and the potential place of New Brunswick in Canada and the world.

* Daylene Lumis, of Sackville, is an experienced early childhood educator.

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