French immersion: An essential tool of the social contract?

Written by Societé de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick on June 12, 2019

Photo: Charlotte Street Arts Centre in Fredericton, site of the Forum on French Immersion in NB, June 15, 2019

When talking about bilingualism in Canada, New Brunswick is often cited as an example of model to be followed in other provinces. There are many reasons behind that choice. The first one is obviously the status of New Brunswick as the only officially bilingual province in Canada. However, there is also the fact that a third of the population of New Brunswick is made up of Francophones and lives in an atmosphere of respect with the other two thirds that are made up of Anglophones.

Indeed, New Brunswick has many reasons to be proud of its bilingualism. With dynamic Francophone communities and Anglophones who speak both official languages, all New Brunswick children can succeed in becoming bilingual, respectful of other cultures and proud to continue being a model of Canadian bilingualism!

For more than 50 years, New Brunswick has worked to build and improve the school system to provide all children with an equal opportunity to learn both our country’s official languages before graduating from high school. However, many express their views on the best way to learn a second language, even when they observe it through the eyes and ears of unilingual individuals. In this context, it has to be recognized that the time has come to ensure that French lives up to its official language designation! 

From scholarly studies, we know that learning both official languages promotes a better understanding of history, greater openness towards others and a broader vision of the world in which we live. Moreover, we know that learning a second language improves communication skills among young adults, allows them to become more competitive in the global market, and that bilingual youth also benefit from the wealth provided by another culture.

Given the large population of Francophones and Anglophones in New Brunswick, our province is considered as a microcosm of Canada’s linguistic composition. For example, in New Brunswick, certain regions are of English-speaking majority, while other regions are of French-speaking majority. There are also bilingual regions where each language group enjoys a similar status. The New Brunswick government has often demonstrated a true commitment to bilingualism and shown great pride in New Brunswick’s status as the only officially bilingual province in Canada. Several governments have demonstrated this commitment by making positive changes to the legislation to ensure that all New Brunswick governments fulfill their obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, both now and in the future. Furthermore, the Official Languages Act continues to be an important tool in the evolution towards greater equality between the two linguistic groups in our province.

New Brunswick’s diversity is part of our history and represents our province’s greatest strength. Diversity is a part of our identity and a key element of our prosperity. All New Brunswickers can be proud that our province has often served as a model for bilingual education in Canada. Our educational programs rank among the best in the world, because our children benefit greatly from our status as the only officially bilingual province in Canada.

Many recognize the importance for all children graduating from high school in Nouveau-Brunswick to be proficient in both official languages in order to benefit from better opportunities for the future.

A good knowledge of English and French will provide young adults with greater employment opportunities when entering the workforce. This is why proficiency in both official languages is always part of the major objectives of most New Brunswick governments. However, to achieve this, we must ensure that the French immersion program remains a beneficial and viable option for all English-speaking students, as soon as they enter kindergarten, or even preschool.

While the educational research findings are not always conclusive, the facts are clear with regards to research on immersion programs. Early French immersion, from grade one, produces excellent results.

According to the data collected to date in NB by the Assessment Division of the Department of Education, no other second-language learning program helps as many students master both official languages as the early French immersion program (Grade 1 Entry). It provides better opportunities for bilingualism for all students. In fact, a recent longitudinal study notes that young people who took French immersion are about 10 times more likely to be bilingual (1). 57% of young non-Francophones outside Quebec who took French immersion reported still being able to carry on a conversation in French at age 21, compared with only 6% of those who did not take immersion.

Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Anglophones aged 5 to 9 able to communicate in French and English decreased in NB. This drop is a direct consequence of the reform of the early French immersion program, which came into effect in 2008 in the province’s English-language schools (2). The age of entry and the amount of time spent in an immersion program are directly related to the level of bilingualism achieved (3). Early entry into French immersion in elementary school, even in kindergarten, is more likely to foster bilingualism amongst Anglophones.

In 2017, 452 grade 12 early French immersion students in NB took part in the oral proficiency test administered by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Of these students, 99.8% were at an Intermediate proficiency level or higher; 87% were at Intermediate Plus or higher, and 46.7% were at Advanced or higher (4).

From the results obtained, French immersion has contributed to the bilingualism of three-quarters of young bilingual Anglophone adults in the province since the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, the even greater potential of this increase in bilingualism among NB Anglophones has often been constrained by political decisions that do not take into account research in this area, which is not necessarily in direct correlation with the demographic decline.

Recent discoveries on understanding how a second language is learned, efforts to improve teaching methods, increased educational resources for second language classrooms and increased opportunities for French cultural experiences are directly related to the stimulus provided by immersion programs in Francophone minority communities. Intensive French and English programs also continue to greatly benefit from these improvements.

Anglophone parents have the choice of deciding which program will be best for their child depending on their preferences with respect to bilingual education. Parents who choose the French immersion program recognize its value as a great learning experience and its value for the future of their child.

Today, the pace of economic globalization is accelerating. More than ever, the ability to communicate in several languages is crucial. The requirements of a globally competitive market are such that a modern education would not be complete without significant language training. Learning a second language is an enrichment process that goes far beyond classroom teaching.

The ability to communicate with the public and colleagues in their own language is always highly sought-after by employers, both from the public sector and the private sector. To ensure this, we must require the continuation of bilingual services in all sectors of the population.

As citizens, we have a crucial role to play to ensure our province’s children reach their objective of becoming bilingual. Looking ahead, we should consider: how could French immersion better be used as a tool to promote positive relationships between the province’s two linguistic communities? What role should the Acadian and Francophone community play in promoting and contributing to the success of French immersion?

As part of its AGM in Fredericton next weekend, the Societé de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (SANB) is holding a public Forum on the State of French Immersion in New Brunswick on June 15 at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, 732 Charlotte St. at 2pm. This text is the discussion paper SANB prepared for the event.

(1) LEPAGE, Jean-François, Camille BOUCHARD-COULOMBE and Brigitte CHAVEZ (2011). Portrait of Official-Language Minorities in Canada: Francophones in New Brunswick. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

(2) PÉPIN-FILION, Dominique (2014). Evolution of Bilingualism in New Brunswick. Report prepared for the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick. Moncton: Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities.

(3) ALLEN, Mary (2008). Youth Bilingualism in Canada. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Education Statistics Division.

(4) Provincial Assessment Results 2017-2018, Grade 12 French Second Language Oral Proficiency. Fredericton: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

Comments are closed.