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From Vancouver to St. John’s, the demand for French immersion has been soaring out of sight. Anxious parents camp out on the sidewalk to snag precious enrolment spots for their kids. School districts such as the sprawling Peel Region west of Toronto have been forced to introduce a lottery system. About 12 years ago, just 10 per cent of the region’s Grade 1 students were enrolled in French immersion. Today it’s 25 per cent. What’s driving the demand? Is it the Trudeau generation, who want to pass along our bilingual heritage to their kids?

Er, no. The main allure of French immersion is that it provides all the benefits of a private school without the tuition costs (or so parents hope). They’ve heard about those brain-science studies that say bilingualism confers important cognitive benefits. If that’s true, then depriving your child of French immersion is practically child abuse.

Parents who are ambitious for their children use French immersion as a form of streaming. Their kids do very well in school – not because they’re learning French, but because they’d do well anywhere. These are the same kids who started out in Montessori school. Their parents know that peer groups matter and that French-immersion classes are full of other bright, accomplished children. There are very few children with behavioural problems, special-education or ESL students in French immersion (although it’s worth noting that the craze has spread to affluent immigrant parents). French immersion is also a way to get the benefits of a top public school even if you can’t afford to live near one.

But if you actually expect your child to wind up speaking fluent French, you might be disappointed. Attrition rates are high, and language proficiency is surprisingly low. Some parents are dismayed because their kids don’t become proficient in either language. Some of them struggle in science and math. And after graduation, many of them never use their French again. Why would they? They don’t need it unless they live in Quebec or New Brunswick. “After 13 years in French immersion, my son has no interest in speaking it,” one mother told me.

None of this should come as a surprise. Bilingualism isn’t easy, and unless you are immersed in another language outside of school, you may never become fluent. Also, French-immersion teachers are in extremely short supply, and not all of them are competent.

But any rational analysis of French immersion is almost impossible to find. And the response of school systems to these practical problems has been to deny them. Instead of supporting a few excellent programs, school systems across Canada have scrambled to expand them and water them down. They often offer immersion programs that begin in kindergarten or Grade 1, not because kids need instruction at such an early age to become proficient (they don’t), but because parents demand it. When New Brunswick decided to cancel French immersion in the early grades a few years ago, activist parents all but rioted in the streets.They even took the government to court.

“It’s all about the parents,” says Jim Croll, co-author of the report that recommended the change. Naturally, every parent wants what’s best for their children. But there’s only so much money to go around. What happens when some parents are more vocal than others? Mr. Croll says, “We are shortchanging a great number of our kids for our own social reasons.”

Margaret Wente

The Globe and Mail

Published Tuesday, Feb. 05 2013, 6:00 AM EST

Last updated Tuesday, Feb. 05 2013, 2:05 PM EST

Accepting 2014 Top Choice Award

Accepting 2015 Top Choice Award

What Others are Saying About Us...

"At the end of this school year, we, Raymond Gu's father and mother, want to thank you for all the work you did to help Raymond through the last four years.

We still remember the first day Raymond came to school. He was so attracted by the materials and didn't notice that we left quietly. When we came back in the afternoon, there were tears still in his eyes and he was playing in the teacher's arms. That was the first day Raymond left us for so long, and the first day of his school experience. 

Raymond is now happy to go to school every day. He enjoys reading, spelling, counting, writing, drawing, singing, dancing and playing school is so fun. The teachers are so kind. He has learned the skills required in his daily life. He has become more knowledgeable of the world around him. He has been taught how to behave, how to help, how to be a team player, which will help him his whole life. Even our friends were surprised that he has the knowledge of grade one or two. 

We had such a good experience with Westbrook Montessori and cannot thank Mr. Riz and the teachers enough."

CCMA Accredited School:

The Canadian Council Of Montessori Administrators Accredited School

We offer a low student-teacher ratio.

Westbrook Montessori Academy
7227 Copenhagen Road
Mississauga, Ontario L5N 2C6, Canada
Phone :  (905) 826-4648