New Brunswick: Not so fast

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue May 27 15:38:15 UTC 2008

 Not so fast, New Brunswick


Globe and Mail Update

May 25, 2008 at 7:18 PM EDT

Ever since New Brunswick Education Minister Kelly Lamrock announced plans to
scrap early French immersion in New Brunswick schools, there has been a
firestorm of controversy. Academics and politicians alike have waded into
the issue, as have parent and community groups. In the spirit of partisan
politics, the province's Liberal government has stood by their beleaguered
minister, as he continues to roll out one reform after another. We are told
that it's all for the future of the children. Yet while debate has stirred
pro and anti-French sentiment, pro- and anti-Liberal stances, does anyone
really care about the scientific evidence behind education and child

An evaluation of existing evidence would not be complete without reference
to the very report that led to the minister's decision. This document,
commissioned by the provincial government, was compiled by two individuals
(education specialists Patricia Lee and Jim Croll) who, despite their own
skills and knowledge base, lacked the credentials or expertise for the task
assigned to them. The analyses behind the drawn conclusions have been
reviewed and found to be erroneous. *This
compiled by colleagues here at Mount Allison University, has been made
available to the minister.

While direct research into Canadian French immersion programs is somewhat
limited, there does exist a body of scientific research that clearly
indicates that the earlier the exposure to a second language, the better the
linguistic outcomes. While there may not be a critical period for the
acquisition of a second language (after which learning becomes impossible),
there is certainly a sensitive period in development marked by increased
plasticity in the brain when language learning is most successful; this
period occurs before the onset of puberty, which may be perilously close to
the Grade 5 entry point for intensive French instruction in the new New
Brunswick plan. Consequently, delayed onset of second language instruction
is statistically associated with lower outcomes in language proficiency.
While the Minister of Education has directly stated that introducing
intensive French in Grade 5 "is the best way," this is simply not true.
Early immersion (and middle immersion starting in Grade 3) is the best known
way to teach a second language.

But is the sole purpose of education to learn a second language? Even the
most adamant supporters of second language instruction would likely concede
that education has a greater purpose. In evaluating an educational approach,
we need to look beyond scores on standardized tests of language proficiency.
In this respect, there is now ample research from the disciplines of neuro-
and cognitive-psychology that establishes benefits of second language
learning beyond conversational proficiency. Importantly, immersion programs
and second language learning have been associated with improved outcomes in
reading and writing (in both languages), mathematics, and creative thinking.
Cross language interactivity is proposed to account for cognitive gains in
the areas of memory, flexibility in thinking, reasoning, and control of
attention. Impressively, these benefits have been found to persist into
adulthood. Once more, the benefits of second language learning are
associated with early exposure. One would think that these are the exact
outcomes that would be desired from an education system; yet in New
Brunswick, we apparently are striving for lower achievement (so long as
students can write a standardized test).

Of all the cognitive benefits associated with early immersion, perhaps none
is as important as the effects on vocabulary knowledge. Early exposure to
other languages has been shown to facilitate growth in vocabulary in all
languages. Oral vocabulary, incidentally, is among the most powerful
predictors of long-term academic success and is intrinsically linked to
linguistic intelligence, problem solving, and creative thinking. Proper
assessment of children's vocabulary levels is time consuming, however, and
this does not appear to fit in with the current obsession with standardized
testing in the schools. In this respect, it is of interest to note that this
most important developmental area has been overlooked in the new
kindergarten curriculum implemented this year in New Brunswick. While this
new cohort of kindergarten children will surely please the politicians by
showing a short-term spike in standardized (pre)literacy testing, research
and theory suggest these children may fare less well long-term. Eradication
of early immersion will only serve to further disadvantage our students in
this critical cognitive-linguistic area of development, for which the
consequences will indeed be far reaching.

Unfortunately French Immersion programs are often seen as elitist and the
cause of streaming in the school system. While this is certainly a valid
concern in at least some districts, there is now ample evidence that
streaming need not be associated with immersion programs.

In fact, research has demonstrated that students who transfer out of French
Immersion programs due to academic difficulty actually fare less well than
do similar students who remain in the program. The benefits of immersion
programs have been empirically shown to extend to children of all abilities,
even those with selective language impairments. While a recent policy
document out of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy at the
University of New Brunswick seems to suggest that the streaming associated
with French immersion justifies its demise, it should be pointed out that
the research cited in that document is largely based on questionable
standardized testing and confounded by issues of multiculturalism and
immigration. Moreover, the evidence presented above suggests that French
immersion need not result in streaming at all. The benefits of French
immersion have been shown to persist even when academic ability and
socio-economic status are controlled for in research. Further, a later onset
of second language instruction may actually cause greater academic hardship
to lower-functioning students and prove to exacerbate streaming.

In summary, the importance of decisions that have great impact on the school
system necessitates that there be careful consideration of the evidence and
consultation with appropriate experts. The consequences are just too great
to do otherwise.

This is not to contend that the early immersion system was perfect. The lack
of support for students experiencing difficulty for instance, is an
especially valid concern. By scrapping the program however, the curriculum
has in essence been dealt an overall reduction in standards. The only
scientifically valid concern of early immersion pertains to first language
literacy, although there is mounting evidence that lags in first language
literacy dissipate within the first few years of an immersion program. This
concern can also be directly addressed, as is done in Ontario, by an early
focus on first language literacy for the first year or two of schooling,
before the onset of full immersion. Intensive second language instruction
starting in Grade 5, however, is simply not supported by any body of

*Gene Ouellette is assistant professor in the Language and Literacy Learning
Lab, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick*
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