early french immersion second languge skills elementary new brunswick

Focus on Learning, Not Learning to be Bilingual

Want World Peace? Put your child in early French immersion. Okay, it’s not that simple. But I think we as New Brunswick parents are missing the big picture when it comes to the debate around early French immersion.

So far, only 1,548 Kindergarten kids are signed up to start immersion in 2017 (our daughter is one of them). That’s compared to 2,120 kids who started immersion in Grade 3 in 2016. A drop of 572 students (though there are 363 fewer Kindergarten students than Grade 3s).

The government’s decision to switch the entry point came quickly, with unsatisfactory answers to questions about staffing and curriculum, and many opinions (without a lot of quantitative evidence) on proficiency outcomes shared. These issues are both likely at play in the lower numbers of students currently opting for Grade 1 entry. Then there’s the question of streaming.

I’ve heard a lot of concern about the idea that French immersion separates the high academic achievers from the general student body. If our goal as a province is to offer inclusive opportunities and to give each student the chance to become bilingual, then immersion should be happening at the earliest entry point. Most French immersion programs across Canada have a Kindergarten entry point for this reason.

I’ve been reading a lot of commentary and research by Joseph Dicks. He’s the Director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada. This statement sums up his message: “We need to change our thinking about early French immersion. It is not enrichment. It is not there to benefit a few. It is a program that, when properly designed, can provide the maximum level of bilingualism for the broadest range of learners.”

But there’s more to this than just the ability to learn French. Learning any second language at an early age works different parts of a child’s brain. Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says that “[r]esearch shows students make cognitive gains when exposed to foreign language at an early age. They’re better problem solvers because they’re able to look at issues from several different angles. Students learning a foreign language also have higher academic results and score higher on standardized tests.”

As with so many issues in our province, we’ve sidetracked into an English versus French debate that isn’t focusing on our children’s education. We are part of a global society and economy. Exposing our children to multiple languages from an early age prepares them for success not only because they learn to communicate in more than one language, but also because they develop flexible and adaptable thinking and an early introduction to the values of diversity.

Let’s not stop with early French immersion. Let’s create more opportunities to introduce our Kindergarten kids to Mi’kmaq, German, Spanish, Korean, and Arabic. These are all languages that are spoken at home in New Brunswick. Let’s bring this into the classroom, perhaps with a home-grown program that follows the Roots of Empathy approach. That program, which sees local parents bring infants into classrooms every three weeks over the course of the school year, creates discussions around inclusion, diversity, democracy, and more. A similar program welcoming community members with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds into the classrooms would be an incredible opportunity to create bonds within our communities and increase our children’s world view.

So let’s stop talking about bilingualism. Let’s talk about learning. Let’s talk about helping kids be creative thinkers with rich cognitive skills. Let’s open our minds to early language learning as more than an avenue to secure a job or support a culture, and focus on raising independent, creative thinkers with a world view.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

One thought on “Focus on Learning, Not Learning to be Bilingual

  1. Connie Bostick August 7, 2023 at 10:10 am

    Whoever thought reading was a solo activity never read with a child. It’s a beautiful connection. 💏

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