French immersion has existed in New Brunswick schools in one form or another for decades. Immersion is the best way to teach a child a second language. Unfortunately, it has been a flashpoint for controversy and a topic of heated debate in Canada’s only officially bilingual province. That debate has unfortunately reared its ugly head again with the surprising and drastic news that the Higgs government wants to move away from French immersion in our schools.
Despite education minister’s Dominic Cardy’s claims that the government is not looking to get rid of immersion, I would argue if you’re actively looking for something to replace the current system then you are in fact looking to get rid of immersion. And that’s exactly what Premier Higgs has confirmed he is doing. Premier Higgs and Kris Austin of the anti-bilingual People’s Alliance party are often quoted as saying immersion isn’t working. If the goal of immersion is to teach a child a second language then they couldn’t be more wrong.
The evidence is clear that French immersion beginning in Grade 1 works and can work well – if it is properly supported. Premier Higgs is conveniently ignoring the evidence that was presented to him in a comprehensive report from his own Department of Education and Early Childhood Development when he was a cabinet minister in the David Alward government.
The report I’m referring to was prepared by the French Second Language Task Force (2012), put together by the Alward government and co-chaired by two well-respected former education ministers, Elvy Robichaud and James Lockyer. The report looked at the controversial move of early immersion from Grade One to Grade Three by the previous Liberal government, under former education minister, Kelly Lamrock. Lamrock initially wanted to move the entry point to Grade 5 but settled on Grade 3 when parents objected strenuously and took the matter to court.
The Robichaud/Lockyer report took a comprehensive look at the research on the matter. Virtually all experts agree the evidence clearly states – the earlier a child is taught a second language the better. The report recommended the Grade One entry point be restored. This recommendation was ignored by the Alward government and his cabinet – but implemented by the Gallant government in 2017.
For Premier Higgs and Kris Austin to say our current immersion system is not working is simply wrong. Many students whose primary language is English graduate from our high schools with second language fluency. Many are at a level that they are ready to enroll and succeed in the University of Moncton and other francophone universities. Others begin working in French as their second language. The Provincial Assessment results for 2017-2018 published by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development show that out of the 452 students who opted to take part in the oral proficiency assessment, 99.8% were at the intermediate level or above, and 87% were at Immediate Plus.
That doesn’t mean the current system is perfect. Issues around streaming and the lack of immersion options in high school exist, and are identified in the Robichaud/Lockyer report. But let’s strengthen the French Immersion Program so it performs better and gives our young people every opportunity. Let’s look at additional course offerings in high school, educational partnerships, experiential learning, placements, exchanges, increased use of technology and extracurricular opportunities. We can make changes to improve the immersion program, but they should be research based with guidance from language experts. We can strengthen the immersion program – and we must, but getting rid of it, replacing it or experimenting with undefined programs that are not based on consultations with language experts must not happen. It is not the change we need.
We can also strengthen the Core French Program and deal with concerns about streaming.
There is a lot of room for improvement as we strive to increase the proficiency of New Brunswickers in both official languages.
Immersion works. Let’s improve the system we have, not start all over again. Teachers do not want more change, more upheaval. Let teachers do their work but let’s support them. Let’s not make our students guinea pigs in Dominic Cardy’s ill-conceived language scheme.
Kris Austin and Premier Higgs may be willing to deprive our children of the opportunities they deserve, to learn a second language, but I believe that is a risk that is too great to take.
They are dead wrong on this issue of moving away from early immersion. That’s what the evidence says.
Leader of the New Brunswick Liberal Party