Remaking French immersion a program for all students, say commissioners

New Brunswick’s French immersion program, which now serves less than half of students in English-language schools, should be dismantled and replaced with a program for all students, says a report on second-language training in the province.

The report, which is part of a review of the province’s Official Language Act, says the French immersion program has created two tiers in the school system and suggests that students in the non-immersive tier are suffering as a result.

The French immersion debate and various adaptations over the years have created “fatigue” among teachers and “confusion” among parents, says the report by two commissioners, Provincial Court Judge Yvette Finn and former Deputy Minister of Education John McLaughlin.

“It is time for this exhausting and unconstructive cycle to end,” said the report released on Wednesday.

“Our consultation and research have led us to a damning conclusion: New Brunswick needs a solid, authentic and engaging French as a second language curriculum for all students in the Anglophone sector.

Immersion is not a failure

A review of official language laws is required every 10 years. The report on language training makes 24 recommendations that would make it possible to offer more second-language training in New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province in the country.

McLaughlin told a news conference that the report doesn’t say French immersion hasn’t been a success. He noted that more than 90% of immersion students reach a conversational level in French.

The problem is that more than 60% of students in English schools are not in French immersion, he says.

“And less than 10% — I think it’s 3% of students — reach that level of conversation when assessed in high school,” McLaughlin said. “So there really is a disconnect between French immersion students and non-French immersion students.”

The province must tackle the two-tier system created by this disconnect, the report said.

“We find it hard to believe that this imbalance does not lead to a lower learning trajectory for many students in the English Prime programme,” the report said.

The report recommends an “immersive French as a second language learning program” for all students. But exactly what such a program would look like and what it would involve would be up to education officials, McLaughlin and Finn said in a statement to CBC News.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy was unable to comment on the report because it had just arrived, said Department spokeswoman Danielle Elliot.

“We’ll have more to share once we’ve had a chance to review.”

Tinkering over the years

French immersion in New Brunswick dates back over 45 years, and the debate over how it is delivered is not new.

In 2008, the Liberal government launched an overhaul of French second language programs.

The Minister of Education at the time first tried to create a universal French program starting in grade 5, with students being able to choose immersion the following year. But in the face of protests and a legal challenge, the Liberals instead established a Grade 3 entry point for immersion.

Blaine Higgs, who has been trying to learn French since becoming premier, said he wants all New Brunswickers to be able to speak both official languages. (Government of New Brunswick/YouTube)

The Progressive Conservatives opposed the change and launched a public consultation when they came to power in 2010. This led to a recommendation for a return to Grade 1, but the Conservatives did not implement it.

The Liberals changed their minds when they came to power and reinstated the Grade 1 entry point in 2017.

When the PCs re-formed government, they dropped their support for Grade 1 entry and came out against Liberal change, arguing there hadn’t been enough time to gauge whether Grade 3 was working. .

Premier Blaine Higgs has made it clear in the past that language education reform is important to him.

“I want every child graduating from our school system to be able to converse in both official languages,” Higgs said in a previous interview with CBC. “And not having a system that 50% or less, or more, comes out without that capability.”

New Brunswickers can’t always communicate

McLaughlin said at the press conference that official bilingualism is unique to New Brunswick, “to our character, to our history, to who we are as a people.”

But a large number of New Brunswickers cannot communicate with each other because they are not bilingual, which leads to tensions between the two official language communities.

“We need to create opportunities for people to understand each other better and get to know each other,” he said.

The report addresses needs at all levels, from early childhood learning to adulthood.

Far fewer English speakers are bilingual than French speakers, according to the report. Seventy-five percent of Francophones say they speak both official languages, but only 15% of Anglophones say they can.

“This means that there are still a large number of individuals from both linguistic communities who do not speak or understand their second official language,” the report said.