Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Despite Slow Decline in French outside Quebec, Immersion Programs Still Popular

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Despite Slow Decline in French outside Quebec, Immersion Programs Still Popular

Article excerpt

As French wanes, French immersion all the rage

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TORONTO - When Shannon Nelson decided to enroll her daughter in French immersion 17 years ago, she expected a long and arduous hunt: the isolated northern Alberta community of Grand Prairie, after all, hardly seemed a likely hotbed of second-language education.

To her surprise, she found not one, but two such programs -- thriving, robust and eager to welcome her daughter. Today, as Nelson's youngest child prepares to tackle high school, immersion options in Canada's second official language are broader than ever.

The original programs have been expanded to accommodate a wider range of students, while a new program specifically for children of francophone families is now in high demand.

Nearly 10 million people reported being able to speak French in 2011, up slightly from 2006 but down as a proportion of the Canadian population, Statistics Canada said Wednesday in the latest tranche of data from last year's census.

The number of people who said they could conduct a conversation in both official languages climbed to 5.8 million last year, an increase of 350,000 people. However, the bulk of the increase emanates from a spike in the number of people in Quebec for whom French is their mother tongue, the agency said.

Indeed, outside Quebec, "bilingualism declined slightly," the agency reported. "The largest decreases were recorded in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, where in each case, the bilingualism rate decreased by half a percentage point."

Nonetheless, said Nelson, the desire to pass the language on to the next generation seems to show no signs of slowing down.

"We are growing to the point where we're looking at new schools to build in order to accommodate the amount of students that are registering in French immersion," she said.

Parents are drawn to the program for many reasons, she said, adding she and her husband were convinced their children would not develop a full appreciation of their native country without the ability to communicate in both official languages.

Parents who opt for immersion, one of many available French as a Second Language programs, relish the idea that their kids will be taking in the provincial curriculum in both English and French simultaneously.

The idea has broad national appeal, according to figures from advocacy group Canadian Parents for French. More than 30 per cent of students in every province outside of Quebec were enrolled in some form of French as a second language program in the 2010-2011 school year, the organization said.

Executive director Robert Rothon said the numbers paint only a partial picture of the national demand, which he said has been steadily increasing for years.

"Generally speaking, demand is higher than the numbers would indicate because a lot of children get turned away, or a lot of communities don't get the programs that parents are requesting from the school district," Rothon said.

Indeed, Nelson said parents find themselves contending with a growing list of frustrations as their children proceed through the system.

A heady sense of exclusivity that can define the early days of a child's enrolment can sometimes make French programs seem like a private education system within the public infrastructure, but it doesn't take long before reality sets in, she said.

The number of immersion classrooms decreases with each passing year, leaving parents to grapple with sometimes insurmountable scheduling and transportation challenges. …

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