MACNAIR: French immersion pour la bourgeoise

MACNAIR: French immersion pour la bourgeoise

So, it seems parents in Surrey are upset that they can’t get their children into a French Immersion program. According to the B.C. and Yukon chapter of the organization Canadian Parents for French, with only 15 of 120 schools in the district offering immersion, there are 169 children on a wait-list.

The explosion of French Immersion in Canada appears to be continuing unabated. According to a Globe and Mail story from January 2013, a record 342,000 students attended immersion programs in the country in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Total French immersion enrolment in B.C. for the 2013-14 school year numbered at just under 50,000 students, or about 8.9 per cent of the total number of students in the province.

Which is interesting, since only 1.6 per cent of residents in the province list French as their mother tongue according to the 2011 census. And even curiouser, 6.9 per cent of residents said they’d be able to conduct a conversation in French, according to the same census information, which is down from 7.3 per cent in 2006.

Interesting that enrolment in French immersion is up every year and yet our ability to speak French hasn’t improved.

Of course, I do have a few theories about those statistics.

My view is that French immersion is your publicly funded backdoor ticket to a private school education experience. Parents who want their kids in French immersion tend to be Canadian-born, come from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds and have higher levels of education than their mainstream counterparts.

According to a 2008 study by J. Douglas Willms, the Canada Research Chair in Human Development at the University of New Brunswick, the data shows conclusively that immersion is a form of segregation.

The reason for that segregation is manifold – to keep their own children away from the special needs, non-native English speaking, at-risk segments of the population common in the mainstream curriculum.

The research showed that while 17 per cent of children in English were listed in special education programs, that figure was only seven per cent in French immersion.

Most apparent, however, was the socioeconomic divide. Willms found that compared with children in the middle socioeconomic group, those from the highest socioeconomic group are nearly twice as likely to enrol in French immersion.

The divide is comparable to or larger than the divide between non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans in the U.S., stated Willms, who concluded those numbers are “unjust” and “bad for kids.”

It’s even less surprising that there’s a crisis in Surrey, where rapid development in the city has changed neighbourhood demographics faster than the private education sector can keep up with for demand.

Naturally, you’re going to find some parents trying to get their kids out of the mainstream, for better or worse.

Seems to me French immersion is less about getting your child the linguistic tools needed for the workplace of the 21st century – and truth be told, if that were the case they’d be better off learning Mandarin or Punjabi – and more about finding the socioeconomic balance they’re more comfortable with.

Of course, that’s not to say all parents – or even most of them – place their children in French immersion for shallow reasons. My son attended immersion in Vancouver for a few years because we wanted him to have the bilingual advantage we never did.

But we never did quite fit in with the Type A personality parents of the high society immersion crowd. We’re happier, as is my son I think, now that he’s back down to earth in the mainstream.

Adrian MacNair is a staff reporter with the Now. He can be reached at

Surrey Now

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