The fierce debate in the United States over bilingual education is seen as something of a curiosity north of the border, where bilingualism is an integral part of Canada's national identity. The so-called "Canadian model" of language learning, which immerses children in a second language for the first few years of their schooling, was first created by a group of English-speaking parents in Quebec and has since spread around the world. In the United States, there are about 240 such immersion programs in schools in 28 states and the District of Columbia. The model has also inspired English immersion programs in Japan, China, and a number of European countries. "By far, immersion is the best program model we've ever seen for children to gain proficiency in a language," says Nancy Rhodes, director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Applied Linguistics.
But Rhodes adds a caveat that is critical for considering the implications of these programs in the United States: the success of this kind of language instruction is contingent on factors that do not exist in many American classroom contexts. Put simply, Rhodes says, "It's a very complicated problem."
The Canadian Model
In contrast to the conflicting attitudes about bilingualism that are often expressed in the United States, most communities in Canada take the idea of children speaking two languages for granted. According to the Canadian Parents for French 2001 annual report, 318,000 students are enrolled in French immersion, representing more than 10 percent of English-speaking students in Canada. The importance of these programs is also recognized by the federal government's Official Languages Act, which helps the provinces pay for French language education across the country. The government recently pledged to double the number of bilingual high school graduates in Canada over the next decade. "It's really a civil rights issue," says Robin Wilson, director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Parents for French. "Our government has set forth that every Canadian has the right to learn both official languages, English and French."
The Canadian model of language learning was created by a group of English-speaking parents of students attending a St. Lambert, Quebec, kindergarten in 1965. While they were motivated by a desire to improve upon the French language instruction typically provided in schools, they were also reacting to a larger phenomenon—the stirrings of an independence movement within Quebec and a concern for their national unity.
Almost forty years later, Canadian immersion classes still bear a surprisingly close resemblance to the original experiment in St. Lambert. The program was based on the assumption that younger children have a natural affinity for learning language and that a second language should be taught within the context of the normal school curriculum. McGill University psychology professor Fred Genesee says the idea was that learning French would come naturally. "The language learning was very incidental," says Genesee, who has studied language immersion programs for more than 30 years. "They used it as normally as possible and expected the kids to just learn whatever they needed as the curriculum progressed. The result was a very high level of functional proficiency."
Now known as "early French immersion," the modern version of the St. Lambert program begins in kindergarten, with the teacher delivering all instruction in French. The English-speaking students are taught to read and write in French first, with an English class introduced some time between second and fourth grade. By the end of elementary school, the curriculum is usually delivered about equally in both languages. Genesee says the teachers rely on so-called sheltered instruction, which includes simple concepts that can be demonstrated physically: "There's a lot of repetition, along the lines of 'Show me the boots. Who has the boots? Look at the nice yellow boots.' The teachers just work and work and work at the language all of the time."
In a first grade classroom at Mary Honeywell Elementary School in Ottawa, the students stare at teacher Violette Morrison as she makes broad gestures, describing their next lesson. They are still allowed to respond to the teacher in English, but the practice is gradually discouraged. "Montre a la classe l'ordinateur," Morrison says, as she directs a student to show the class the computer. After a few tries, the boy finally moves hesitantly toward a computer in the back of the room. "It's a real song and dance to get them to understand," she acknowledges.
Down the hall, in Monique Gauthier's fourth grade classroom, the students are much more animated. They converse about a math lesson in fluent French as Gauthier records their problem-solving on the board. After observing the class, Principal Shirley Brackenberry, a former immersion teacher herself, says there's often an "incubation period," and then the new language suddenly starts to flow: "You have to allow students the time to absorb the language. But by January or February, the changes are phenomenal."
Canadian educators continually tinker with the immersion idea, introducing different amounts of English in different grades and even creating spinoffs. Now, there's a middle immersion program that begins in fourth grade, while late immersion starts in seventh. Both are favored by immigrant families and other parents who want their children to have a solid grounding in English before they immerse themselves in French.
One reason Canadians have the luxury to try these new approaches is that there's a firm foundation of research behind them. According to McGill's Fred Genesee, Canada has the most extensive body of research on immersion programs in the world, beginning with Wally Lambert and G. Richard Tucker's landmark 1972 book, The Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment, which chronicled the first five years of the program. Both researchers at McGill, Lambert and Tucker were invited by the parents to help design and evaluate this new approach. They chose a random selection of children for the first French immersion pilot class, while the remaining students made up the control group. The researchers then tested both groups at the beginning of kindergarten and at the end of every academic year until they graduated from high school. They repeated the experiment with the next class.
Lambert and Tucker's study found that students enrolled in the French immersion program achieved much higher levels of French literacy when compared to the control students, who studied 40 minutes of French a day. Perhaps even more important, the researchers discovered that the immersion students performed just as well in other academic subjects as control students with similar ability levels. "This was really revolutionary," says Genesee. "Up until then, there was very little scientific evidence about the effectiveness of [this kind of] language education."
In subsequent years, most immersion research has built upon Lambert and Tucker's work, and some researchers have found drawbacks to the immersion method. While French immersion graduates are technically considered fluent, they're generally not as fluent as native French speakers. According to researcher Marjorie Bingham Wesche of the University of Ottawa's Second Language Institute, an "immersion dialect" has developed, "characterized by a more restricted vocabulary, largely limited to domains experienced in school, the overuse of high frequency verbs, and a [tendency] to show English influences in grammar." As a result, there's been an increased focus on French language development within the immersion curriculum, with teachers correcting students and instructing them in proper French usage within the context of every school subject.
French Immersion in the U.S.
One of the oldest immersion programs in the United States is the one at Sligo Creek Elementary School in Silver Springs, Maryland. For more than 30 years, Sligo Creek has immersed about half of its student body in French up until the fourth grade. Teachers then introduce only 45 minutes of English, twice a week. Donna Gouin, Sligo Creek's French Immersion Program coordinator, says the parents have demanded a rigorous program. "They want their children to be challenged, and they believe this will help them gain higher order thinking skills," says Gouin, who's been an immersion teacher for 23 years. "Plus, they think it will help their kids succeed in the workplace."
Test results suggest the program has been effective. Gouin says the students score at a comparable level with Canadian immersion students on French comprehension and they perform better, on average, on the verbal SAT in high school than their counterparts in the district's traditional classrooms.
But there are distinct challenges to introducing an immersion program in an American setting. While Canadian school districts face a teacher shortage, the problem is even more acute in the U.S. "There is a big shortage of qualified teachers," says Rhodes. "They have to be elementary certified and have near-native proficiency. That's hard to find."
Sligo Creek relies mostly on qualified teachers who contact them. The school's recruitment efforts are complicated by the fact that the district won't obtain work visas for interested teachers from other countries. Sligo Creek teachers also struggle with a dearth of good materials. "I spend most of my time searching through Canadian and French materials trying to find activities that will fit our curriculum," says Gouin. "But when it comes to things like the history of Maryland, we have no choice but to translate it ourselves."
Beware of false analogies
While the Canadian model provides strong evidence that this kind of language immersion works well in certain contexts, it would be erroneous to conclude that it strengthens the argument for any particular approach to working with American ESL students, says Rhodes. "For a Spanish-speaking child [in the U.S.], this would be an odd model because they are in an English-speaking country," she notes.
If anything, Rhodes believes that these programs evidence the value of children learning in more than one language. "When we point to Canada as a model, the response [from some bilingual education opponents] has been, 'But they have political problems because of this,'" she says. "People don't realize that bilingualism can help address those problems."
In addition, Wesche's findings suggest that the social inequality between two languages can be a stumbling block to an immersion program, especially one intended for language-minority students. These programs have their greatest success, she notes, when students: 1) are majority-language speakers; 2) have little knowledge of the instructional language; 3) choose to participate in the program; 4) are taught by teachers with native fluency; and, 5) have access to strong curricular materials.
But even where those conditions are met in the United States, educators still encounter opposition from those who discount the importance of students' knowing and learning in more than one language. This monolingual attitude can be especially baffling for Canadians, who have watched generations of students successfully emerge from immersion schooling. "It's not a problem for a child to learn through two languages," says McGill's Genesee. "The research has shown that there's no need to be afraid of bilingualism."
Karen Kelly is an education journalist and frequent contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.