French immersion debate continues

The Telegraph-Journal, a provincial newspaper, published an article with the misleading headline “Province plans to scrap French immersion program” on Jan. 7.

Within hours the headline was changed, and Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy denied ever speaking about axing the program, but he said he does plan on making changes, starting with pilot programs focused on immersion this coming fall.

“The idea is that if we try to use pilot schools in the fall and they don’t show results, I will have no problem at all saying, ‘Nope, that didn’t work, let’s go back to what we had before.’”

Cardy said schools will participate on a volunteer basis. There’s no information on what the new program will look like, but Cardy said he’s been working closely with principals, teachers and students to understand their needs.

“We have a great community of teachers in the province and they want what’s best for the children in the province.”

What’s the problem with French immersion?

In the 2017-2018 Grade 12 Provincial Assessment, early French immersion students, or students who started French immersion in Grade 1, were tested on their second-language oral proficiency. Of the 452 students, 99.8 per cent were reported to speak intermediate level French or above.

Intermediate level French is described as someone who can have simple conversations in French but struggles with grammar skills.

Of those students, 87 per cent had an intermediate plus level or above, and 46.7 per cent graduated at an advanced level or above.

Intermediate plus level refers to someone who can use French in everyday, work and school environments. Advanced level French speakers should be able to participate in all non-formal and some formal conversations in a variety of topics.

Leo-James Levesque, field placement coordinator, French language specialist and education professor at St. Thomas University, taught French as a second language for over 35 years.

He said the government is interpreting the results of the provincial assessment wrong and students graduating with an intermediate plus level should be considered easily trainable by employers to work in both languages.

According to Levesque, that means 393 out of the 452 students that graduated from the French immersion program in 2018 should be able to get jobs with bilingual requirements.

Cardy said that isn’t true.

“One of the biggest complaints we’ve heard is students when they finish French immersion are not able to pass the exam to get into working for the government,” said Cardy.

According to the website of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick, provincial government departments do not publish the required language levels in job ads, so it’s unclear what levels are able to find employment.

Cardy said part of this issue has to do with language training programs not being offered or accessible in some areas. The same issue, he said, applies to French immersion programs.

“This is one province and we can’t say that kids who live in better-off urban areas deserve a better education than kids who live elsewhere.”

Cardy said he hopes some of the schools in the pilot program will include schools that currently do not have a French immersion program.

Levesque said while it’s true some areas of New Brunswick don’t offer French immersion, we need to ask ourselves what kind of access is feasible.

Levesque said all areas should have access to some French language training though it may not be as intensive as French immersion.

“We may not be able to have a hospital in a small community, but we may be able to have a health clinic.”

“It’s equivalent, you won’t necessarily have all the services but you would still have access to minimal language.”

Cardy said he wants to see French immersion available across the province.

“We don’t have these arguments around math, we don’t talk about how we shouldn’t teach math in rural areas.”

The students

Third-year communications and public policy student Ben Pugsley was in French immersion from Grade 1 until high school graduation.

He said the system worked well for himself and his peers.

“I do think more students should be doing it. I think it shouldn’t be as much of an option. You should get a grounding in French if you live in New Brunswick.”

Pugsley said the biggest thing he noticed was his inability to have casual conversations in French. He estimates that only 20 per cent of his education focused on conversational skills.

“I made friends that were native French speakers and the first time I went up to them I said, ‘Hello, my name is Ben. I like basketball and sports. How are you today?’ So, there was no slang.”

Cardy said he hopes to be able to add more conversational French into the French immersion program. He said French language interviews for civil service jobs revolve around having current affairs discussions in French.

“The problem with the way we run immersion is that often it’s very much focused on academic language. If you’re doing Grade 12 physics, you’re going to learn terms around physics. That won’t be much help if you then do a civil service entry exam.”

Cardy said going forward he wants to have meaningful conversations with students and provide meetings outside of school hours where students can voice their opinions.

“Their voices have not been listened to enough, and they’re the people that experience the system on a daily basis.”

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