New French second-language program for N.B. ‘a mistake,’ says education professor

New French second-language program for N.B. ‘a mistake,’ says education professor

Language teachers in New Brunswick fear the program, set to replace French immersion next school year and announced by the Higgs government earlier this month, will result in reduced learning for all students in all subjects.

When the unified second language plan is rolled out in September 2023 for students entering Kindergarten and 1st grade, every student will spend half their day “in exploratory French learning”, according to Education Secretary Bill Hogan.

Léo-James Lévesque, an education professor at St Thomas University and a former French education officer for a Fredericton-area school district, said the move was “a mistake” that will take away choice and lead to poorer learning outcomes for students.

“You create situations where you will learn some aspects of the language, but you won’t learn the language itself.”

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Léo-James Lévesque believes changes to the program launched in September must be made quickly, otherwise students will fail in many areas, not just in learning French as a second language. (St Thomas University)

He said models like this have been tried, but after spending 50 percent of the day learning the French language instead of learning concepts in French, the students didn’t have enough time to master the required concepts in math and literacy to learn.

“So it actually had a negative impact on student learning,” Lévesque said. “Teachers will have 50 percent less time to teach the curriculum… even if they try, they won’t have enough time.”

He said that if officials had based their decision on research, this program “would not be recommended.”

Lévesque points to a recent report by child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock, which sounds the alarm about a 29 percent decline in child literacy over the past 10 years.

‘No Immersion’

While Hogan insists that the new program is a “French immersion system that involves all of our students,” Lévesque disagrees.

“It’s not an immersion program,” he said.

It may hit the 50 percent threshold of immersion programs in elementary school, but Lévesque said in Immersion, “major subjects are taught in French” and students “learn how to speak, read and write in both official languages.”

He said that’s very different from the “exploratory learning in French” in the new program. In this model, students learn about the French language and culture rather than learning universal concepts in the language, which doesn’t produce a high level of proficiency, Lévesque said.

Lévesque compares it to a program called linguisticsor Sprachbad, which was tested in Ottawa in the 1990s.

“It didn’t work to get higher results,” he said. “The students enjoyed listening to French music. They were happy in this environment – but in fact they didn’t learn the language. So just because you’re being entertained in a language doesn’t mean you’re going to learn that language.”

A similar 50-50 program was also tried in the 1970s, and Lévesque said research showed 20 percent of students needed housing.

“They couldn’t work at the pace that the program required … They still had to have some sort of streaming because these students couldn’t function in this fast-paced environment.”

More questions than answers

Paula Kristmanson, professor of education at the University of New Brunswick and director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada, has many questions about how the program’s new “exploration” component will work and what training new teachers need.

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Prof. Paula Kristmanson, director of the Second Language Research Institute of Canada, hopes to meet Education Secretary Bill Hogan in the new year. (Michele Brideau/Radio Canada)

“We really wonder what a teacher would do in this 50 percent French block,” she said. “It has to be intentional and thought out so that learners can actually learn and use the language.”

Kristmanson has requested a meeting with the education secretary and plans to sit down with Hogan and other officials in the new year.

One of their biggest concerns is reducing French instruction time from 50 percent in elementary school to 40 percent in middle school.

“Which of course wouldn’t be an immersive program anymore. Anything under 50 percent isn’t considered immersion,” Kristmanson said.

This raises the question of how students who want to reach a level of competence beyond simple conversation can do so.

We will make our students fail in many areas, not only in French as a second language, but also in other subjects where we are already not doing as well as we would like.– Prof. Léo-James Lévesque

“Many people want and need to reach a higher level of competence. So what path is there for secondary school students to go beyond… Will they have the confidence and competence and motivation to continue?”

With the reduction in time spent learning French in middle school, Kristmanson also worries that students who want to take immersion courses in high school will be unprepared.

“If the students have not had experience learning these academic subjects in French up to this point, they may not be possible at the high school level. So what exactly could we envision for our high school students who would want this? really improve and reach a higher level of competency?”

choice taken away

For Lévesque, the new one-size-fits-all program takes opportunity and access.

“It takes away everyone’s choice to become bilingual in the Anglophone school system,” he said.

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Under the new program, all students will spend half their day learning the French language in elementary school and 40 percent in middle school. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

He said all New Brunswick residents deserve the right to choose the language of instruction for their child and the education system must protect that right.

“You may or may not agree with this decision, but it is not your right to decide this for someone else.”

Meanwhile, Hogan insists the new program is a “perfect combination” and still a French immersion program. He said the claim that it wasn’t immersion was “one of the fallacies.”

Lévesque is urging the government to make changes to the scheme, which will be rolled out in September, and do it quickly.

“The students will be the ones who will pay the price,” he said.

“We will make our students fail in many areas, not only in French as a second language, but also in other subjects where we are already not doing as well as we would like.”

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