There's something crazy and just plain WRONG about having to bus five- and six-year-olds for miles and miles, just so they can be educated in the majority language of their own community. Yet that's precisely what's happening in Ontario in the publicly funded schools of the Ottawa-Carleton region.

Early French Immersion has become so wildly popular that 70% of families are now opting to place their children in those programmes. And so many neighbourhood schools are now half-empty (or half-full, depending on your viewpoint) as it is that they can't sustain both an English stream and French-immersion stream class at every grade level. As a result, it's the often far-away "collector" schools that are grouping together the English-stream children from several neighbourhoods.

Now, I'm prepared to admit that Early French Immersion may be a good option for some children, but certainly not for ALL, and probably not even for the majority of anglophone children. Parents want to give their kids the best possible start in life - I get that! They know that fluency in both official languages can be an asset, if not an actual requirement, for many jobs. I get that too. But education begins at home, and begins with giving the kids a good grounding in the language and culture of the family. If the parents speak more than one language, then that's great! If not, starting school - already a big step for many children - may prove quite traumatic indeed.

Late immersion is a different matter - by the intermediate school level, most kids are fluent in their native language at least, and have the linguistic and cognitive apparatus they need for more sophisticated thought and other developmental processes. Mastering another language (or two or three) at this stage will if anything serve to enrich and enhance those processes. Teens and adults probably do not learn language quite the way that babies and toddlers do, but that doesn't have to make the process more laborious, as so many people assume. In fact, I would argue that in many ways adult learners tend to learn more efficiently and economically precisely because they can learn and reason deductively rather than inductively. They have the "competence" or "langue", not just the dozens of instances of "performance" or "parole".

I think part of the reason French immersion has become so wildly popular is that "core French", at least as it was taught in my day, was such a dismal failure. But surely it would have made more sense, both logically and fiscally, to enhance and improve the core French curriculum rather than insisting that most children go into early French immersion, sometimes to the detriment of achieving a good grasp of their native tongue? And sometimes only to end up switching to the English system anyway, away from all their friends and feeling like failures? Isn't a bit more French or a bit better French instruction better than virtually none? Consider that we do still have a French-language school board in the Ottawa area that could easily serve children wanting to focus more on learning in French at certain points in their school careers.

There are many issues here, of course, and I've barely scratched the surface. Having a whole parallel system for the Roman Catholics is another ongoing annoyance. And, of course, there's also the urban/rural divide. But that will have to wait for another day.

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