If you live in New Brunswick, you probably have an opinion on how the French language is taught as a second language to the majority anglophone population. The recent decision by the Minister of Education Kelly Lamrock to eliminate early immersion is supported by those who see unaddressed negative effects on the school system emanating from the immersion program. The change to late immersion has been contested strongly by families who have seen good results from the early immersion program.
The installation of an intensive French second language (FSL) education was a conscious effort on the part of government to provide a way for the majority to learn the minority language and allow them equal access to public service jobs providing service in both official languages. A secondary benefit of the FSL program has also been the introduction of the French community and their culture to the English over the years.
The progress in language training has not come without problems. As the numbers of Early Immersion classes increased though the system, there were difficulties in finding enough appropriately trained teachers. At the same time, hiring of teachers for English language classes ceased as districts scrambled to find places for the existing teachers displaced.
According to some educators, a real inequity in the quality of education provided to immersion versus the core classes is at the root of the government’s decision. This is largely caused by the streaming effect, which negatively affects the learning environment in core classes by removing many of the positive role models, increasing the concentration of special needs students and has the unintended social consequence of fostering feelings of elitism among immersion students. It has also had the effect of depressing the achievement levels (in English, math & science) in the immersion classes, where many of the most talented learners are found, due to the immersion model used in NB and the way it has been implemented in most schools. Of course, it has depressed the achievement in French in the core French classes as well (streaming effect).
Teachers have been telling education officials for years about the almost impossible teaching and learning conditions in many of the core classrooms.
So, we have a serious issue for a large group of students being dealt with by the government versus a significant number of parents and their lobby group. The supporters of Early Immersion question the effectiveness of the new approach. The new plan to defer all French language training to grade five contains risks. Students at a later age will not gain the fluency of pronunciation and will be less likely to overcome shyness to actually speak the language outside the classroom, a necessity for retention. If the language performance of the new graduates is lower than EFI, will the government lower the standards it demands for new hires?
Is there a middle ground between these groups that could satisfy the basic objectives? Or will the government and the immersion parents hold their ground?
Most would agree that a second language is grasped with better fluency at a very young age. We all know politicians, who having learned a second language later in life, fracture the French or English language on a consistent basis. As a sign of respect for their brave efforts, I won’t identify them by name.
We learn a language from listening to our parents and talking. Most of us speak our native tongue adequately before the age of four. It is only later at school that we learn the rules of grammar and expand our vocabulary to a sophisticated level.
Just a suggestion … Perhaps the kindergarten level could be the place where the intensive French language training takes place instead of the proposal for grade 5. It could be followed up in grades 1-5 with enhanced core French and late immersion starting in grade 6 as proposed. This removes the streaming until grade six yet retains an early immersion element, albeit for a one year period. A little water in everyone’s wine might work.
The purpose of our schools is to help all of our children succeed in Mathematics, English and French language skills, and many other subjects. During their journey, they must learn respect for each other and be treated fairly by the school system.
The present education system needs improvement to treat all students fairly. The Government’s proposal, though well meaning, is flawed and could be improved. Given some willingness on both sides, perhaps a compromise could be forged that would lead us into a win-win situation.