Saturday, May 31, 2008

French immersion concerns are real, but response is flawed

Blogger's note: Finally a NB paper willing to publish a letter from an FSL expert!

For The Daily Gleaner, May 30th, 2008

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock recently released another written response to concerns raised by his decision to eliminate early French immersion from the elementary school program.

The document was entitled When Should Study Give Way to Decision? This is a response to some of his statements concerning my own and others' research on second language learning in school settings - to set the record straight.

Lamrock rightly raises the issue of early versus late second language teaching and learning. He points out that in my review I conclude that "the notion that there is an optimal starting grade for bilingual education is misguided."

I would stick by this conclusion. However, Lamrock fails to point out that, earlier in the same paragraph, I had stated that:

"The "best" starting grade for bilingual education can depend on the goals, needs and resources of the community. In communities such as Quebec, Belgium, or Northern Italy, where two or more languages are commonly used in everyday life, it may be best to begin bilingual education early so that children become accustomed to both (all) languages early on and, also, so that they can take advantage of language learning opportunities that are afforded outside school.

"In contrast, in communities such as Germany, Japan or many communities in the U.S. where monolingualism is the norm and other languages have no official status and/or are only used in restricted settings, introduction of bilingual education in higher grades may be sufficient."

In other words, the very communities I identified as being appropriate for early immersion resemble New Brunswick. According to the minister's own words: "Bilingualism is simply a fact of life for New Brunwickers ... a universal skill."

Lamrock expresses concerns for the streaming that has resulted from an optional early French immersion program. It is important to point out that there has been considerable research on the suitability of immersion for students with academic challenges of various types. This research indicates that students whose parents choose immersion and stay in the program do just as well as students who opt for the English program and, at the same time, they become bilingual to a level that students in core French do not.

This research suggests that French immersion could be made more accessible to a wider ranger of students than seems to currently be the case, without jeopardizing student achievement. Are parents aware of this research?

In my opinion, rather than eliminating early immersion, the minister could instead stem the attrition by challenging the bias of parents and some school counsellors who advise students and parents to choose English over immersion because of fears that immersion is too difficult.

The minister argues his decision is part of a trend to "use more universal models to teach second and third languages." There is no universal approach that I am aware of, at least in the professional and scientific literature.

However, without doubt, there is an international trend toward more content-based second language instruction beginning in the primary grades. This is important, because the intensive French program proposed by Lamrock is a significant move away from content-based second language instruction, insofar as it eliminates most academic content from the program.

The content, if any, that will be part of intensive French in Grade 5 will necessarily be "peripheral," since anglophone students will lack sufficient proficiency in French to be able to study academic subject matter at the Grade 5 level.

Intensive French that relies on art, music, etc., is a throw-back to the old days of foreign language teaching when peripheral curricular content was used to teach language.

Lamrock seeks to marshal arguments for the new "Intensive French Late immersion" option by stating that because a two-year late immersion program in Montreal produced results as good as early immersion, we should be open to alternative forms of immersion. Fair enough.

However, the implication that the "Intensive French Late Immersion" option might be equally effective as the Montreal late immersion program ignores the fact that the Quebec program was offered to students who had already had seven years (kindergarten to grade 6) of French-as-a-second language instruction consisting of 45-60 minutes per day.

As well, the Montreal program included 80 per cent of instructional time in both grades 7 and 8. If the new "Intensive French Late Immersion" is comparable, then it could be a winner.

The fly in the late-immersion ointment, even in Montreal, was that the level of attendance in late immersion was much more selective and much lower than in early immersion because many students thought it was too demanding, that it would jeopardize their high school grades, and, besides, they would not get additional credit that would facilitate their entry into college or university even if they take late immersion.

In ending, I wish to indicate that the concerns of Lamrock are clearly serious and should be taken seriously. He has done New Brunswickers a service by identifying major issues in the French second language programs in New Brunwick: streaming, high attrition from immersion, low levels of French proficiency among core French students, and the recruitment and professional development of teachers.

Arguments for the status quo in the face of these troubling educational facts would be foolish. At the same time, it is not at all clear how the minister's proposal to replace immersion in favor of a "universal" intensive program will resolve these problems.

There is a lot at stake - the language education of future New Brunswick students and their ability to compete in the job market, not to mention New Brunswick's rightly valued reputation as the only officially bilingual province in Canada. Scrapping a program that is internationally acknowledged to be the most successful form of second language education seems extreme.


Fred Genesee is an expert in second-language acquisitions at McGill University.

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