French Immersion in Canada: A critical evaluation of current findings and proposals for an improvement of teaching methods, leading to greater effectiveness in L2 teaching

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

31 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of contents


1. What is Immersion? - Definition and key features of French Immersion

2. Historical development of French immersion

3. Different types of immersion programs – Benefits and problems
3.1) Early Total Immersion Conception
3.2) Early Partial Immersion
3.3) Late Immersion Bilingual Education
3.4) Summary of results and critical evaluation:

4. The effectiveness of immersion programs: Are they a suitable tool for the acquisition of native-like performance in a second language ?

5. Ways and methods to make the immersion classroom more efficient
5.1) Demand for a new national curriculum
5.2) Error correction in French immersion: An attempt to prevent the early fossilization of an interlanguage
5.3) Process writing as a learning tool in the Foreign Language Class
5.4) Explicit vocabulary instruction in French Immersion

6. Conclusion

7. List of works cited


French Immersion in Canada has long been considered as one of the most efficient programs to promote “real” bilingualism. A lot of research has been carried out in that field and mainly stated positive results for this special way of learning a second language. But if one goes deeper into the literature concerned with that subject, one encounters more and more critical voices doubting the proverbial effectiveness of these programs. This paper shall provide a critical evaluation of the findings, research provided in respect to the effectiveness of immersion programs in Canada. Furthermore, proposals for new teaching techniques, which shall make the immersion classroom more efficient, will be described and evaluated. At the beginning of this paper, a short introduction to immersion education is given, including a definition of the term “immersion” and a presentation of the key features of Canadian Immersion Education, followed by an abstract of the history of immersion education in chapter 2. The following section describes the conception of different types of immersion programs, along with findings concerning their effectiveness. This shall help the reader to gain a complete picture of the pros and cons of a specific type of program. The main part of this paper (chapter 4) starts with a critical evaluation of the results presented in previous chapters and tries to assess whether these programs are a suitable tool for the acquisition of native-like performance in a second language. Chapter 5 offers a selection of four different teaching methods which can make – if they are applied correctly – the immersion classroom more efficient. The paper concludes with a summary of the most important results, trying to provide a critical evaluation of immersion as such.

1. What is Immersion? - Definition and key features of French Immersion

Immersion is a common term which has been used in connection with various programs of second language education all over North America. But before we are going to have a closer look at French immersion in the following chapters, it is necessary to define what immersion really means. If we try to formulate a definition one could say that “an immersion program is a device for introducing a non-native language and culture to majority language students with the aim of providing students with native-like language skills in the foreign language.” Although the term immersion has been used to describe a great number of programs dealing with bilingual education, our definition is restricted to what is known as French immersion in Canada.

French immersion in Canada rests on four key features which make it important as a model for foreign language education in general and specifically – and more importantly – as an effective model of elementary education.

The first key feature is that the second language (L2) is used for the delivery of subject matter instruction (Snow (1), 1990: 111). Practically this means that the second language is the medium of instruction for school subjects like mathematics, science and social studies. Here, children are supposed to learn a foreign language in the same way as they have learned their mother tongue– by being exposed to authentic, communicative situations in the target language. Secondly, children in these immersion programs benefit from being separated from native speakers of the foreign language, as learners are all in the same “linguistic boat” (Krashen, 1984 zit. nach Snow (1), 1990:111) and therefore only receive information which has specially been designed for their developing levels of proficiency in the foreign language. A third key feature is that immersion programs reflect the broader perspective of the world outside of school. Thus, immersion students are in no danger of losing their first language proficiency (as they receive most of their instruction in L2) – on the contrary: immersion education promotes additive bilingualism[1] because students are adding to their linguistic repertoire and sense of identity through the experience of being schooled in the foreign language (Snow (1), 1990, p. 111). The fourth key feature of immersion education is the change of sequence and intensity of first- and second language instruction. In early total immersion all initial instruction is in the foreign language, but then, after the end of Grade One, the amount of time in which children are instructed in L2 is gradually reduced, so that children receive more and more instruction in English.

Other important features of the immersion model are for example that the two languages are separated for instruction, which has the effect that the same content is never repeated. This is especially interesting, because even when there are difficulties in understanding, the immersion teacher never switches from the immersion language to the first language just for simplification.[2]

According to Snow (1) (1990, p. 113) these features shall provide a basis for the formulation of four main goals of immersion programs:

(1) Immersion students will make normal progress in achieving the objectives of the standard elementary school curriculum.
(2) They will maintain normal progress in development of the first language (English).
(3) They will provide functional proficiency in speaking, listening, reading, and writing the foreign language.
(4) They will develop positive attitudes towards themselves as English speakers and towards representatives of the ethnic community of the foreign language they are learning.

Commenting on these goals it is interesting that even in 1990, when this article was published, such positive and uncritical evaluation of the immersion experience is uttered. As early as in 1978, H. Stern (1978: 844) mentioned in his article “French Immersion in Canada” that children who learn a second language in a classroom can only be considered as being formally bilingual not functionally. Therefore he explains:

“Take a child with one Francophone and one Anglophone parent; assume that both languages are spoken in that home: this child is likely to grow up bilingual.”

He continues

“We can contrast this free or functional learning approach with methods of second or foreign language teaching in the classroom. Here, focus of attention is on the language itself, language as a code, on words, sentences, pronunciation, grammar rules and practice, exercises and drill. Questions are answered, not because one has anything to communicate but as means of developing skills which later would come into use. This, then is a formal strategy. (Stern, 1978: 844)

Goal number four is also worth being discussed. It is certainly true that immersion students somehow identify with the language they are learning. Swain (1986:53) concludes

“…that the early immersion experience seems to have reduced the social distance perceived between self and French-Canadians, especially French Canadians who are bilingual.”

Furthermore she adds

“To summarize, the psychological and social impact of immersion programmes has in no way negatively affected the immersion students’ views of themselves or of their own ethnolinguistic group, while at the same time it has closed somewhat the social gap between the perceptions of themselves and French – Canadians. (Swain, 1986: 55)

But in spite of the positive attitude towards French-Canadians and the French culture, cultural contact with French-Canadians is rare, as there are only few cultural occasions on which one could speak L2. Surveys on language use of immersion graduates have shown that relatively few students make use of French after leaving school. This may partly be caused by a lack of confidence in speaking French and - of course - a natural preference for English use (Baker, 1996: 206). Similarly, they do not tend to interact more with Francophones than students who have attended mainstream classes. Thus, one could say that there is a gap between competence and performance outside school.

But if one considers the whole immersion experience, one must surely admit that the benefits of French immersion in Canada prevail.

H. Stern says

“I regard it as one of the, perhaps the most significant, contribution that Canada has made in the field of second language education (Stern, 1978:. 851)

And so goals one and two proposed by Snow are certainly not an illusion but have already been proved as the most positive outcomes for French immersion education.

2. Historical development of French immersion

After having given a definition and having portrayed the goals of the French immersion in Canada, it is quiete interesting to hear something about its origins and its history. The coming into being of the immersion classroom goes back to an initiative of a small group of English-speaking parents in St. Lambert, Montreal, between 1963 and 1966 who insisted on having some form of bilingual education for their children. Believing in the importance of being able to communicate in French (which is the official language in the province of Quebec), as this could be a decisive factor for the future of their children, they initiated out-of-school French classes for their children. Having read about theoretical teaching experiments elsewhere, they were convinced that an early start in bilingual education is necessary to achieve best results (Stern, 1978: 836).Together with authorities as Penfield and Lambert they lobbied local administrators and politicians to set up experimental early French language classes for Anglophone children, which finally led to the establishment of experimental kindergarten classes, where children were completely instructed in French. But parents were so eager that they even formulated a curriculum pattern for early French immersion and for continuing bilingual education which would extend throughout their children’s schooling (Stern, 1978: 837). So one could say that the conception which was developed by the St. Lambert parents has formed the basis for early immersion programs throughout Canada. Later, immersion has not only advanced through the grades but also spread geographically through the provinces. In 1974, the Department of Secretary of State organised a federal-provincial conference on immersion in Halifax. This also made clear that immersion had already spread beyond the educational scene of Ottawa and Montreal and had become a program of national interest. As a consequence, immersion education was now available to a wider range of pupils and was not restricted only to the children of a limited number of middle-class parents. After that, variations of the first immersion program were developed, for example a partial immersion program starting in Grade One in Elgin County, and late immersion programs starting in Grade Eight, were established by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal and indicated a departure from the “traditional” St. Lambert type of program. Today, many more types of immersion programs like early partial immersion and delayed immersion, which satisfy the needs of different groups of pupils, have been established. In the following chapter there is special emphasis on these programs – that means how they functionally work and what aims they follow.

3. Different types of immersion programs – Benefits and problems

The altering forms of immersion which are available today in the Canadian context differ primarily in respect to the grade levels during which the second language is used as a medium of instruction. Thus, they are differentiated into early, delayed and late immersion. Secondly, it is differentiated on basis of the amount of instruction provided in the target language (total vs. partial) and / or the number of years during which the second language is used as a major medium of instruction (Genesee, 1987: 19). The following chapters will give a better insight into the conception of different types of immersion, as well as an overview of benefits and problems which are connected with the respective type of immersion program.

3.1 Early Total Immersion Conception

In early total immersion children start in the kindergarten or in Grade One, with all instruction in French. Normally, in Grade Two or Three, a program of English Language Arts is introduced for approximately one hour per day. This reduces the percentage of French instruction from 100 % to 80%, with 20% now instructed in English. Subjects which are taught in French at that point of time are French, mathematics, science, social studies, art, music and physical education (Swain, 1978: 578). This continues in Grade Four, although variations in the language of instruction for a certain subject can vary depending on the availability of teachers. From Grade Six to Grade Eight the percentage of French and English instruction is equal, whereas from Grade Nine to Grade Twelve they have 60% of their curricular instruction in English and 40% in French. The following diagram shows the percentage of French as a medium of instruction compared to English in Early Total Immersion Bilingual Education.


[1] An additive bilingual situation is where the addition of a second language and culture is unlikely to replace or displace the first language and culture (Lambert, 1980 zit. nach Baker, 1996:66).

[2] This kind of consistency, of sticking to a certain scheme would also make foreign language teaching elsewhere more efficient, because then teachers – as well as students – would have to make use of the second language to overcome the problem, which would probably end up in mastery of L2 and not in the poor results we experience, when we teach a foreign language class in the 11th grade.

Excerpt out of 31 pages


French Immersion in Canada: A critical evaluation of current findings and proposals for an improvement of teaching methods, leading to greater effectiveness in L2 teaching
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Institute for Foreign Language Philology - Anglistics/American Studies)
Advanced Seminar: Bilingualism
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
766 KB
Bilingualism, French Immersion, Immersion, Early total immersion, Partial immersion, Late Immersion, Francophones, Canada, acquisition of a foreign language, second language acquisition
Quote paper
Eric Mühle (Author), 2000, French Immersion in Canada: A critical evaluation of current findings and proposals for an improvement of teaching methods, leading to greater effectiveness in L2 teaching, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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