The Case Against French Immersion

Wrote this back in 2010 well before others, including Macleans got into the act. 

One of the tougher decisions my wife and I had to make as parents was to decide whether to send our kids into French Immersion (FI).  Our school board offers the program at the Junior Kindergarten level and therefore you need to make this important decision when your child is the ripe old age of four!!

I decided to write about this decision because many people were “shocked” that my wife and I, who are strong believers in education, would not be being putting our kids into the FI program.

Our local public board – the Upper Grand has certainly done a great “sell” job for the FI stream. Now they complain that the high enrolment for FI has become problematic. Its no wonder – they make it seem you are doing your child a disservice if you don’t enroll them.

What has been missing of course is the other side of the story and why a rational parent would opt out. So for all those that wonder and ponder this decision I offer the case against French Immersion.

First off, much of the current research out their about education is pointing to the fact that the key person in determining success in child’s learning development is the teacher.  Everybody wants the best teachers for their child.  Well I can tell you, the chances of getting the best teachers are not in FI. How can I make such a blanket statement? Think about it. When the school board has to hire teachers how many qualified French teachers do you think can apply for a job in southwestern Ontario. If I was a Principal I would rather pick my best teacher candidates from a pool of a 100, than 2! This doesn’t mean of course that there aren’t talented French Immersion teachers out there – but the odds are against it. This problem only gets worse as the FI programs increases in popularity.

The other issue surrounds the age in which you have to decide. At age four I have no clue on my kids’ academic abilities. I have no idea if they will be the next Einstein or will struggle with variety of learning disabilities. If for whatever reason, they do struggle in FI they will be shown the door. Usually by grade 5 or before struggling kids are shown the door. What kind of message will this send to your son or daughter’s self – esteem? Their love of school and learning will surely be diminished if not totally destroyed. If your kid makes it – great for you, if not, good luck.  As a parent I am not ready to play the educational version of Russian roulette on my kids’ academic future.

For me, education enrichment and development is as much as what goes on outside the classroom as what goes on in it.  I want my kids to learn and play with children, from all walks of life, backgrounds faiths, and abilities.  Any program that discriminates against this as FI does – is not something that I want my children to take part.  

Many argue in the merits of being bilingual. Who could argue this one? I hope my kids are bilingual adults in whatever language that will serve their interest. Just because you don’t choose FI doesn’t mean your child won’t learn French. It’s part of the curriculum. They can take as many French courses as they want in High School – a long with host of other available other language courses. I have plenty of family and friends who didn’t take FI, but are fully bi-lingual in French, Mandarin and Russian to name a few.  Another issue is the lack of options available in high school.

There is also the matter of choice. Staying in FI means less choice in courses and options than their non FI counterparts. I want my kids to be able to follow their interests and explore a wide variety topics while in school.

I have heard some parents say they chose FI because they like the fact that is an elitist program – a private school within the public system. Well I am not sure how elitist a program can be when everyone is doing it?

My last point is not related to what system is better from an educational perspective, but for the environment. Our kids walk to school at the local community school. FI kids are bussed all over God’s green earth in order to accommodate them. Our Board even has the audacity to displace kids from their local school that is within walking distance and send them elsewhere, in order to bus in FI students from outside the area. What a complete waste of money and excess pollution. From an environmental perspective supporting FI makes as much sense as living within walking distance of your job, only to hop in your car each day and drive around Guelph a few times before finally heading to work.  

If you have chosen the FI option, I mean no animosity – we all want what’s best for our kids. I wrote this in order to offer some balance to the FI debate – which I believe has become too one-sided.     Ideally, I would like the province to follow the European model and embed French within the regular curriculum so that any child graduating from an Ontario High School would be bilingual. To do that would require time, additional resources, and of course money.

Getting the money is no problem for a system as rich as ours that can afford to fund two school systems – but I will leave that for another time.   

Gregory A. Cawsey

 So follow up to some of the backlash to the column:

I knew when the rationale for why my wife and I decided not to send our kids into FI program here in Guelph was published, it would cause a stir. Some thoughts...

First off, the decision is one that was made based on how FI is run in Guelph. How FI programs are run vary from board to board and the arguments offered were from a Guelph perspective. Our decision might have been quite different if we lived in Ottawa for example.

In respect to the talent pool comment. I have heard no one dispute the column's claim there are less applicants for FI postings than non. That being the case I don't know of anyone who would not rather have a larger pool of qualified applicants to choose from when hiring for any position - let alone one as important as a classroom teacher. This argument does not mean that all FI teachers are bad, a fact clearly stated in my column

"This doesn’t mean there aren’t some talented French immersion teachers out there."

I even happen to know a few.

For some - their anger stems from the fact that I won't stay quiet about the big lie - that all teachers are of the same ability and skill. Teachers' Unions like to preach this untruth - but no one truly believes it. Unfortunately, only a few teachers are willing to face the consequences and say anything publicly that directly or indirectly shatters this myth.

The other key lesson has been learned writing op-ed material is that people will sometimes agree or disagree with you - but they may not actually have read what you wrote. We see what we want to see I guess and a few "hot button" words will move people to take a side.