French immersion in Canada

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The doors of King George School in Calgary, Alberta. This started as a regular English neighbourhood school in 1912, became dual-track English-French in 1987 and single-track French immersion in 2002.

French immersion is a form of bilingual education in which students who do not speak French as a first language will receive instruction in French. In most French-immersion schools, students will learn to speak French and learn most subjects such as history, music, geography, math, art, physical education and science in French.

This type of education, in which most of the students are from the majority language community but are voluntarily immersed in the minority language is atypical of most language learning around the world, and was developed in Canada as a result of political and social changes in the 1960s (notably the Official Languages Act, 1969 which led many Anglophones (primarily urban or suburban and middle class) to put their children in to French programs to ensure they could succeed in the increasing number of jobs in the federal government and private sector that required personal bilingualism.

Most school boards in Canada offer French immersion starting in grade one and others start as early as kindergarten. At the primary level, students may receive instructions in French at or near a hundred percent of their instructional day, called "total immersion", or some smaller part of the day ("partial immersion"). In the case of total immersion, English instruction is introduced in perhaps grade three (Alberta) or grade four (Ontario), and the minutes of English instruction will increase throughout their educational career with up to fifty percent of English/French instruction daily.



French immersion programming spread rapidly from its original start in Canada in the 1960s. French immersion education is optional and not compulsory; parents have the choice of sending their children to schools that offer such programming. Students are encouraged to begin communicating in French as consistently as possible. Teachers in French immersion schools are competent in speaking French, either having acquired specific French as a Second Language qualifications[1] or already being fluent in French and having a teaching certification. Classroom communication of French in French immersion programs is meaningful and authentic for students. Learning French becomes subconscious and there is a strong focus on understanding before speaking. Most students that enrol in French immersion programs are not experts in French and lack experience in it. Students in French immersion programs complete the same core curriculum subjects as students in the English-language program.[2]

The French immersion concept was designed to: (a) capitalize on children's ability to learn language naturally and effortlessly; (b) take advantage of their social ability and open attitudes to language and culture; (c) reflect on the building blocks of language by emphasizing the use of languages for communication and (d) not stopping the children from participating in native language development, academic achievement or general cognitive development.[3]



  • French Immersion: French as the language of instruction
  • Extended French: available only in Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia; French as the language of instruction for one or two core subjects in addition to French Language Arts
  • Intensive French: a more recent program which started in 1998 in Newfoundland and Labrador and branched out to six other provinces and the Northwest Territories[when?]; intensive period of French instruction for one-half of the school year (70% of school day in French)[4]


The age an individual begins the French Immersion program varies:

  • Early Immersion: Kindergarten or Grade One
  • Middle Immersion: Grade Four or Five
  • Late Immersion: Grade Six, Seven, or Eight


The amount of time French Immersion students spend in immersion varies:

  • Total: commences with 100% immersion in the second language and continually decreases to 50%
  • Partial: commences with close to 50% immersion and remains at this level[5]


A study shows that French immersion might improve academic performance.[6]

Students participate in French immersion programs to gain employability-related skills and to increase job opportunities.[7]

Students in French immersion demonstrate a superior level of mental flexibility, which is an ability to think more independently of words and to have a higher awareness of concept formation as well as a more diversified intelligence than students in the regular program.[8]

Data illustrates that students in French immersion programs also have a linguistic advantage as they are able to adopt two different perspectives, offering alternative ways to look at the same information.[9]

French immersion students also have a deeper appreciation and respect for various cultures. In addition, they also gain more fulfillment in learning a new language.[10]

Students in French immersion programs also have greater opportunity to understand their own culture or their own nation. For example, Canada's identity is based on the fact that it holds two official languages, English and French. French immersion students have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be Canadian through the French Immersion program.[11]


Many challenges in participating in French Immersion programs persist. For example, many French immersion students do not reach native-like language proficiency in French.[12] This could be due, in part, to the fact that there is a lack of willingness on the part of French immersion students to communicate in French outside of the classroom. This lack of willingness may stem from students not feeling prepared or equipped to practice the language.[13]

Access to special education resources is often restricted to students in French immersion and as such, it is often suggested to parents that they switch their children to a regular English stream in order to access the support that their child requires. Suggesting that exceptional students would be better off without the French immersion program and that resources are not available in the program would be ignorant and misinformed.[14] French immersion teachers could go through professional development training and courses about special education integration into their programs, all while creating referral processes for special education in French Immersion with parent involvement as an aim.[15] When the rights of children to special education are overlooked, consequences can be costly to students' futures.[16]

French immersion students from elementary schools often experience difficulties when entering a high school which provides the full curriculum in English only. This often leads to problems with "both language and subject matter gaps in their learning", according to a Toronto Star report.[17] Students who do have access to a high school with French instruction may feel overwhelmed with having to learn heavy content in mathematics and science in their second language. Teachers in such schools can be equally overwhelmed with being restricted to using only French in these contexts, and may experience guilt when English is used in their classrooms to reinforce vocabulary and complex concepts.[18] Some experts recommend debate within school boards and ministries about allowing the use of English in French Immersion contexts when teaching complex concepts in mathematics and science.[19]

It is extremely difficult for school boards in Canada to hire teachers who are fully fluent in French and also have experience and evidence of excellent teaching skills in the various subjects that they must teach in elementary schools, for example. A school board in the Greater Toronto Area reported in 2017 that 80% of principals recently reported finding it extremely difficult to hire French-speaking teachers of the same calibre as the English-speaking staff.[17] In fact, in November 2017, the Halton Catholic District School Board was considering an end to their French immersion program for this reason.[20] Some experts have suggested that research be conducted to seek strategies for French teacher recruitment to alleviate staff shortages in Canadian schools. Scholarship and bursary programs for prospective Bachelor of Education students to gain French teaching qualifications are also suggested to alleviate these shortages.[21] The province of Ontario planned to open its first university where classes will be taught exclusively in French and this may alleviate the staffing problems eventually. By late 2017, the final recommendations from a planning board had been submitted to the government.[22] The Université de l'Ontario français began accepting students in 2021.

A report, by a PhD candidate scholar in educational policy at the University of Toronto, also discussed concerns about French immersion creating a dual track academic stream in many schools. She referred to a system "where the smart, motivated kids are funnelled into French, and everyone else gets left behind in English" which can become viewed as the "de facto low track stream". The author discussed a study at a Vancouver school, published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, which concluded that "French immersion programmes operate as a 'cream-skimming' phenomenon … [that] allows white, middle class parents to access markers of higher social status and prestige."[17]

A report by the Canadian Council on Learning spoke on the failure of many students to learn French: "Although most Canadian school children are taught English or French as a second language in school, these lessons often fail to yield functional bilingualism. For example, New Brunswick's French Second Language Commission recently reported that fewer than 1% of the students who enrolled in "core French" in 1994 had met the provincial minimum goal by 2007. And fewer than 10% of students who enrolled in early-French immersion in 1995 had attained the provincial goal by 2007."[23]

Use of French immersion programs[edit]

French immersion programs were introduced into Canadian schools in the 1960s to encourage bilingualism across the country. Now[when?] immersion programs provide an alternative education stream for many students. Since their implementation, French immersion programs have become increasingly popular across Canada and school districts have seen significant increased enrolment in their French immersion student population over the years.[24]

K–12 education[edit]

French immersion programs are offered in most Anglophone public school districts. French immersion is also done in some private schools and preschools.

Higher education[edit]

Several Canadian universities offer opportunities for students to continue to study subjects in either French or English, such as Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the University of Alberta Faculté Saint-Jean in Edmonton, the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, the Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, the Université de Saint-Boniface of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, University of Ottawa, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, York University's Glendon College in Toronto and HEC Montréal in Montreal.

Regional discrepancies[edit]

French-immersion programs are offered in all ten Canadian provinces. The popularity of French immersion and "core French" differ by province and region. Note that these numbers refers to anglophone and allophone pupils: it does not include francophone mother-tongue students, who are enrolled in a separate school system altogether. Historically, enrolment in French immersion is proportionally highest in Quebec, New Brunswick, both provinces that have their own provincial language laws, above and beyond the federal Official Languages Act, which made knowledge of French even more valuable in the local job markets. French immersion enrolment in lowest in Western Canada and the North, where the jobs requiring French are more rare. However all regions except New Brunswick (where the rules on eligibility were changed) experienced growth in proportionate and absolute terms between 2000 and 2012.

Students enrolled in French Immersion in Canada[25][26]
Province/Territory 2012 2000
 Alberta 7% 4%
 British Columbia 9% 2%
 Manitoba 12% 6%
 New Brunswick 25% 32%
 Newfoundland and Labrador 14% 7%
 Nova Scotia 13% 12%
 Ontario 9% 6%
 Prince Edward Island 23% 20%
 Québec 37% 22%
 Saskatchewan 7% 3%

Core French[edit]

Students enrolled in Core French in Canada[27][28]
Province/Territory 2012
 Alberta 32%
 British Columbia 32%
 Manitoba 35%
 New Brunswick 60%
 Newfoundland and Labrador 45%
 Nova Scotia 40%
 Northwest Territories 22%
 Nunavut 1%
 Ontario 41%
 Prince Edward Island 34%
 Québec 64%
 Saskatchewan 22%


In 2008, an editorial in the Vancouver Sun[29][30] criticized French immersion programs for having become a way for higher socioeconomic groups to obtain a publicly funded elite track education. Since lower socioeconomic groups and children with learning and behavioral problems have lower rates of participation in French immersion, a situation has developed in which ambitious families might prefer French immersion for its effective streaming than for the bilingual skills it gives to students.
Enrollment in French Immersion programs has become difficult for immigrants to Canada, because it is argued by school administrators and board professionals that learning English as a second language presents enough of a challenge for students.[31] The lack of accessibility to French Immersion programs for English Language Learners is very similar to that for students with special needs.[32] As a result, the media places blame on Canada's immigrants for the declining number of Canadians who are able to speak English and French, while the immigrant community continues to pursue opportunities to become fluent in both official languages of Canada. It is suggested that Canada's education system provide more opportunities to immigrants to become proficient in English and French in order to increase the number of Canadians who have knowledge of both official languages.[33]

Outside Canada[edit]

The Agence pour l'enseignement français à l'étranger (AEFE) runs or funds 470 schools worldwide, with French as the primary language of instruction in most schools.


French immersion is used in Australian schools such as Benowa State High School and The Southport School; teaching mathematics, SOSE, science and French, entirely in French.

There is also a French immersion program offered at Methodist Ladies' College and Mansfield State High School teaching a variety of subjects over three years in French.

Telopea Park School in Canberra is a bilingual French-English school.

The program is also offered at The Glennie School in Toowoomba, Queensland.

Lycée Condorcet in Maroubra, Sydney teaches almost entirely in French and conforms to the French government system, enabling students to easily transition to and from France to the school.[34]

United Kingdom[edit]

Walker Road Primary School, Aberdeen, Scotland started an early partial immersion program in 2000.[35] Also, Judgemeadow Community College, Evington, in Leicester, has been using a French Immersion course in one form group a year for the last four years. Pupils answer the register in French, and their French, IT and PHSE lessons are all in French. The Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle (originally Lycée Français de Londres) is a French school transported to England and as such the vast majority of the teaching is in French and caters to French curricula and indeed, as far as quatrième (at the age of 13-14), all pupils are taught entirely in French.

United States[edit]

Private French language immersion schools in the United States have existed since at least the 1950s. Most of these schools receive help from the AEFE. There are currently almost 40 of these schools in the United States.

Public school districts have run French immersion programs since 1974.

The southern part of Louisiana has a strong French heritage extending back to colonial times. During the mid-twentieth century, however, the number of native French speakers plunged as French was banned in public schools and children punished for speaking it. The social stigma associated with speaking French was sufficiently strong that many parents did not speak the language to their children, so generations born in the second half of the century rarely spoke French in the home. As a result, French immersion is today viewed by parents and educators as a way to save the French language in Louisiana, where there are more French immersion programs than in any other state.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Ontario College of Teachers. "What qualifications do I need to teach in English or French language schools?". Ontario College of Teachers. Archived from the original on 2016-11-04. Retrieved 2016-11-02.
  2. ^ Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 5th ed. North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters, p. 240.
  3. ^ Shapson, S and D'Oyley, V. (1984) 'Bilingual and Multicultural Education: Canadian Perspectives' Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, p. 34.
  4. ^ Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic, and cognitive benefits of French immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), p. 607.
  5. ^ Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 5th ed. North York, Ontario: Multilingual Matters, p. 239.
  6. ^ Barik, H.C., and M. Swain (1978). Evaluation of a French immersion program: The Ottawa study through grade five. Canadian Journal of Behaviour Science, 10(3), p. 201.
  7. ^ Makropoulos, J. (2009). Gaining access to late French-immersion programs: Class-based perspectives of Canadian students in an Ottawa high school. Bilingual Research Journal, 32, p. 327.
  8. ^ Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic, and cognitive benefits of French immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), p. 617.
  9. ^ Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic, and cognitive benefits of French immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), p. 621.
  10. ^ Lazaruk, W. (2007). Linguistic, academic, and cognitive benefits of French immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), p. 622.
  11. ^ Nagy, P., & Klaiman, R. (1988). Attitudes to and impact of French immersion. Canadian Journal of Education, 13(2), p. 275.
  12. ^ Roy, S. (2010). Not truly, not entirely...'Pas comme les Francophones'. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(3), p. 550
  13. ^ Macintyre, P., Burns, C., & Jessome, A. (2011). Ambivalence of communicating in a second language: A qualitative study of French immersion students' willingness to communicate. The Modern Language Journal, 95(1), p. 94.
  14. ^ Wise, N (2011). "Access to special education for exceptional students in French immersion programs: An equity issue". Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics. 14 (1): 179.
  15. ^ Cobb, C (2015). "Is French immersion a special education loophole? … And does it intensify issues of accessibility and exclusion?". International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 18 (2): 183. doi:10.1080/13670050.2014.887052. S2CID 144318226.
  16. ^ Cobb, C (2015). "Is French immersion a special education loophole? … And does it intensify issues of accessibility and exclusion?". International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 18 (2): 184. doi:10.1080/13670050.2014.887052. S2CID 144318226.
  17. ^ a b c Maharaj, Sachin (9 November 2017). "Breaking the spell of French immersion". Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 2017-12-24. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  18. ^ Culligan, K (2015). "Student and Teacher Perceptions of First Language Use in Secondary French Immersion Mathematics Classrooms". Alberta Journal of Educational Research. 61 (1): 15.
  19. ^ Turnbull, Cormier, Bourque, M, M, J. "The First Language in Science Class: A Quasi-Experimental Study in Late French Immersion". Modern Language Journal. 95: 195.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. ^ Gordon, Andrea (20 November 2017). "GTA board to decide fate of French immersion amid 'staffing crisis'". Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 2017-12-28. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  21. ^ Ewart, G (2009). "Retention of New Teachers in Minority French and French Immersion Programs in Manitoba". Canadian Journal of Education. 32 (3): 498.
  22. ^ "Could the First French Language University in Ontario be in Halton?". Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  23. ^ "Parlez-vous français? The advantages of bilingualism in Canada" (PDF). Canadian Council on Learning. 2008. p. 6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-11. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  24. ^ "French immersion". 2008-12-01. Archived from the original on 2015-02-04. Retrieved 2015-03-06.
  25. ^ "French immersion". 2008-12-01. Archived from the original on 2015-02-04. Retrieved 2015-03-06.
  26. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-08-20. Retrieved 2017-08-20.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-08-20. Retrieved 2017-08-20.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ Ontario, Government of. "French as a Second Language". Archived from the original on 2015-04-16. Retrieved 2015-04-07.
  29. ^ Gardner, D. The Vancouver Sun, July 26, 2008
  30. ^ "French immersion is education for the elite". 2008-07-26. Archived from the original on 2015-02-04. Retrieved 2015-03-06.
  31. ^ Canadian Council on Learning. "Lessons in learning: French-immersion education in Canada" (PDF). Canadian Council on Learning. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-02-16. Retrieved 2016-11-01.
  32. ^ Wise, N (2011). "Access to special education for exceptional students in French immersion programs: An equity issue". Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics. 14 (1): 178.
  33. ^ Mady, C (2015). "Immigrants outperform Canadian-born groups in French immersion: Examining factors that influence their achievement". International Journal of Multilingualism. 12 (3): 308. doi:10.1080/14790718.2014.967252. S2CID 143441839.
  34. ^ "About our school". Lycee Condorcet (Sydney). Archived from the original on 2016-11-01. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  35. ^ 2001 Early Partial Immersion in French at Walker Road Primary School, Aberdeen Archived 2011-06-07 at the Wayback Machine by Professor Richard Johnstone, University of Stirling, Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching & Research

External links[edit]