Left to Right – Camille, enjoys listening to French, Andrew likes learning the language, says it is harder than English, Abran wants to live in Quebec, you have to be able to speak French there, Ashile born in France, is getting his fluency back, Matthew, wants to travel and French looks good on the resumé, Jasmine likes the challenge, the teacher and the field trips, and Maura liked the field trip to Transwest Helicopters where they gave them a tour in French.
If you’re a parent, here’s one more reason to be grateful you live in the South Okanagan. Across Canada, virtually all schools that offer language immersion programs have long wait lists and/or lottery systems to select students.
Moms and Dads brave cold and snow to stand in line, some even sleep overnight in their cars in hopes of getting their kids registered for a seat in a French Immersion program. With demand for immersion programs growing every year, thousands of kids are being waitlisted or declined due to lack of space.
But not in Oliver. Two years ago, School District 53 quietly started a brand new late entry (grade 6&7) French Immersion program at Tuc-el-Nuit School. A handful of spaces remain for next year, no snowy waits or car-sleeping required.
Tuc-el-Nuit’s French Immersion program started September 2015. This year’s grade 7s are the first students to have benefitted from two years of immersion and the results are nothing short of amazing.
“I’ll admit it,” says Principal Will Eaton. “I can’t understand half the French these kids can. It’s so exciting. After just a couple months, they can read, write and speak in French: it’s almost as if their brains expand right in front of you.”
The learning curve is phenomenal, agrees the program’s lead teacher and chief cheerleader, Deirdre Simpson. Students enter the program in grade 6 with little to no understanding of French. Simpson focuses first on very basic language, simple vocabulary and numbers. She takes it slow and easy; makes it fun so kids don’t get overwhelmed. Within a short time, the class is conducted mainly in French. Within three months, the kids have a working understanding of the language.
And then, she says, comes the magic.
“Sometime just after Christmas, the kids suddenly start talking in French. The words just start bubbling out and you can feel their new confidence, their pride in their skill. When you imagine these kids knew only a few words of French the day they walked into this classroom, the progress is so visible and obvious.”
By the end of their second year of French immersion, students are typically reading and writing at grade level in both English and French.
“The students who do the program don’t miss out on anything. We do the same curriculum as the kids in the English-program, and they stay at the same reading level. What the students get in the French program is all bonus,” says Simpson. “And, parents don’t need to know a word of French to have their kids excel in the program.”
Much to many parents’ surprise, French Immersion doesn’t just suit academically gifted students.
“There’s definitely an elitist stereotype about immersion, but that’s absolutely wrong,” says Simpson. “Students who struggle in school are going to do at least as well as they would in a regular, English classroom, and some do better.
We go right back to basics – working with really simple, repetitive text; developing reading strategies; working with vocabulary – so there’s less of a gap between academically advanced kids and children who find school challenging. I’ve heard kids say that this program is the first time they feel smart.”
Brain science backs up Simpson’s experience. Research proves that students who do any number of years of immersion in a second language will do as well or better in all subjects, including English, than their English-stream peers. How can that be? Learning a new language is one of the very best ways to grow your brain.
The process of learning a language causes your brain to build new neural pathways (new connections between brain synapses), which improves reasoning, memory, mental flexibility and concentration.
“Learning a new language forces you to learn how to learn,” says Simpson. “Teaching your brain how to learn, building that scaffolding for language acquisition, makes learning anything else easier.”
Language immersion also builds an understanding and openness to other cultures, helps kids better understand our national identity, and develops a skill that can prove useful for employment and/or travel. And, learning a second language as a child also lowers one’s risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s much later in life.
To best accommodate and build on the language skills the students carry into high school, SOSS plans to offer language enrichment programming for students who have completed immersion programming.
Tuc-el-Nuit school is now accepting Immersion program registrations for students entering grade six in September 2017. Students wishing to enter the program, including those wishing to transfer from other schools, should contact the school as soon as possible.