Sally Connon has some advice for parents who fear their kids might sink in French immersion.
Don't worry about it.
She has two otherwise English-speaking kids still in elementary school who already have the ability to speak, write and think in French -- proof enough to Connon the system works and the benefits of learning another language at a young age far outweigh any drawbacks.
The bilingual baptism of Connon's kids, Mackenzie, 11, and Liam, 10, started when they were halfway through Grade 1 and kindergarten, when they moved to Austin Road elementary school in Prince George from a non-French immersion school in Alberta. Still unsure at the end of the school year if she and her husband had made the right choice, Connon had her answer that summer when she picked her kids up at the end of week-long French immersion day camp and heard them in the back seat of the car laughing and having conversations in French.
"I struggled with it, wondering if they go in French immersion, are they going to have access to the best universities in the world, or if their English is going to be weak, but what blows me away with my kids is that without a great deal more effort, they are bilingual," said Connon.
"The amazing thing is they've accomplished that just by being immersed in it. It's a pity we can't give every student that opportunity. If you can do it, throw caution to the wind and try it. What's to lose?"
Connon, a native of Sandy Lake, Man., is bilingual, but doesn't speak French. She learned Ukrainian after her father successfully lobbied educators to start an immersion program so younger generations could communicate with the predominantly Ukrainian immigrants of southern Manitoba's farming communities.
Encouraged by their own progress, Connon's kids are already considering signing up as language volunteers for the 2015 Canada Winter Games. They passed their first big test as French translators two years ago when the family toured Canada in a motorhome.
"They could read the street signs, they could read the menus, they could get on the phone and book the ferry, they were fully functional," said Connon. "At that age, eight and nine, they surprised us over and over again."
Austin Road school closed in June 2010 and the Connons transferred to the choice French immersion program at Lac des Bois elementary, a single-track (French only) K-7 school. Connon says while it's virtually impossible to predict how a kindergarten-aged student will respond to French immersion, parents will know before their kids leave elementary school whether or not to pull the plug. She's also an advocate of late immersion, giving older elementary kids a chance to join the program.
"I'm not suggesting you need to be a straight-A student to do it, but I think they need to be not struggling," said Connon. "Why saddle them with a language barrier when they're already struggling? By Grade 6, you know the type of learning challenges you can give them in French immersion and pile on top of their existing learning challenges."
As a French immersion kid herself, Joanne Mikkelsen needed no convincing the program was right for her two daughters. Her schooling in Calgary left her fluently bilingual, which led directly to a job at the Canada pavilion at 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, Australia. She wants her kids, Kiersten, 11, and Heidi, 9, to have the same travel and job opportunities a French background would allow. So instead of going to their neighbourhood catchment school, they enrolled in the French choice program at Spruceland elementary, switching to nearby Lac des Bois when it opened 2 1/2 years ago.
"I think they do think it's kind of cool to be able to speak a second language and speak in front of family or friends who don't have it," said Mikkelsen. "There's been a few times when friends who are taking French at an English school have called or kids for help with their homework and they take great pleasure in that."
SD 57 superintendent Brian Pepper, a former teacher at Spruceland, realized the benefits of having his youngest daughter learn French from her first day of kindergarten when the family traveled to Quebec City for a summer vacation.
Recalls Pepper: "She looked to me and said, 'Dad, I heard these people talking about a fair that's on in a building somewhere close here. We need to find out where the fair is.'
"After one year of kindergarten, she had that understanding."
All three of Pepper's children went on to have at least 10 years of immersion. His son's fluency was a contributing factor that helped him get hired as a teacher, and his oldest daughter continues to use her second language as a nurse in Grande Prairie.
"From my perspective, it's a wonderful program that's provided opportunities and an enriched cultural experience for my children," Pepper said.
Not all French immersion students stick with it. Attrition rates are high and not every student becomes fluent. In Prince George, a city with about 3,500 francophones, where it is rare to hear French spoken in conversation, it's easy for language skills to get rusty, but there are ways around that. Mikkelsen and her husband Glen invite French-speaking friends to their home and encourage their kids to practice with them.
"Lots of the teachers we talked to when we went to open houses say it's not for everybody, kids really need to be grounded in English before they can pick up a second language and some of the kids do have a hard time," said Joanne Mikkelsen.
"One of the biggest fears I've heard from friends and in the information evenings was parents' concerns that they don't have French themselves and only speak English, but it doesn't matter. As one teacher said: 'It's our job in the day to teach your kids French, it's your job to teach them English at home.'"