Tales from l’immersion française / French Immersion (by Dr. Caroline Riches)

On the other side of the “Bonjour/Hi” controversy currently raging in Quebec (The Canadian Press, 2017, Nov 30), there is French Immersion (FI); suffice to say, perspectives on bilingualism differ within our province.

FI has been part of my repertoire and indeed my life for a very long time, and I am a huge supporter. They say that FI was invented in Quebec (Lambert & Tucker, 1972) and some say it was refined at McGill (e.g., Genesee, 1976). As many of us know, the FI concept was a grassroots initiative. In tandem with the effects of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, and the need for anglophones to be able to speak French to live and engage fully in Quebec society, anglophone parents in a suburb of Montreal took it upon themselves to lobby for a way for their children to become bilingual (Lambert & Tucker, 1972). At that time (and indeed to this day) it was common practice for anglophone parents to enroll their children in French schools – authentic immersion – in order to ensure that their children became English/French bilinguals. FI was an initiative to formalize that authentic immersion in French within the English school system. My mother likes to tell me (and it is true) that she spearheaded the introduction of FI into another (unnamed) English school board in the West Island of Montreal (Unnamed School Board, 1972). In those days, the debate raged as to what grade/age was best to begin French Immersion programs (early [Kindergarten], middle [Grade 4] or late ][secondary school]) as well as the proportion of time devoted to French (100%, 80%, 50%) – in order to promote L2 attainment but ensure L1 development. That school board decided to adopt a middle FI model with 80% of the curriculum taught in French. Though I missed this historical introduction, my sister who is 4 years younger than me was in that inaugural class.

The rest is history so to speak. French Immersion became, and has continued to be, a successful and popular program across Canada and indeed the model has been adopted around the world. Fast forward to when it came time for our daughters to begin their school adventure; we had just moved back to our West Island roots, and had the choice between a French school and a ‘middle’ French Immersion school. As mothers always know best, in this case my mother, it was a seemingly easy choice – middle French Immersion of course! That choice led me directly into my doctoral studies in second language education, and to be honest, my daughters’ experiences in FI, coupled with my own academic studies, convinced me that I did not make the right choice (sorry Mom). Though I maintain that it could/should have been the right choice.

Currently, in the Montreal area in particular, FI programs in their various forms are the norm rather than the exception in English school boards; additionally enrolment in English schools is declining. This has two main implications for us as teacher educators and I will get to those implications in a minute. Let me first say that the ‘immersion in French’ choice in Quebec goes beyond different FI programs in English school boards and continues to include the choice of sending non-francophone children to French schools (Weinstock, 2014, Sept 15) – yes, the original ‘immersion in French’ lives on!. In fact, this is a much more viable option in Quebec than in the Rest of Canada (ROC), as access to French schools is universal, whereas in the ROC there are restrictive eligibility requirements. But why the selection of French school over FI in an English school after all these years? Why is it still seen as a more effective way to learn French, than FI programs?

In my opinion, we still need to do a better job of explaining the theoretical underpinnings of French immersion and, perhaps more importantly, of instituting the FI approach more fully. French immersion is too often understood as simply teaching subject matter in French, but it is much more than that. It is a complex interplay between a focus on content and a focus on language which Lyster (2007) refers to as a counterbalanced approach. Effective French immersion teaching must embody and implement this approach, and this is not a simple task. FI teacher preparation is certainly a necessary component to achieving this, but herein lies our challenge. There seems to be a strongly held belief that proficiency in French along with a general teaching degree is sufficient to be an effective French Immersion teacher. While a high level of French proficiency is of utmost importance, it is not sufficient in and of itself. An understanding and competence with respect to the pedagogy of FI is, at the very least, equally important. At McGill, we have recently reinstated our Pédagogie de l’Immersion Française (PIF) concentration in our B.Ed. K/Elementary program, and the misunderstandings that we are needing to correct are surprising – from B.Ed. students who are highly proficient in French explaining that they are not in the PIF program because they already speak French (thinking that it is a French Immersion program for student teachers themselves, to learn French?) to a preference by school administrators for hiring graduates from generic teacher education programs at French universities over our highly qualified PIF graduates (thinking that proficiency in French is the only requirement). And so our work continues, first to educate the educators as to the intricacies of effective FI pedagogy, and second to continue to improve FI programs to achieve their true potential, such that those who can chose FI, will.


Genesee, F. (1976). The suitability of French immersion programs for all children. Canadian Modern Language Review, 32: 494-515

Lambert, E. & Tucker, G. (1972). Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching Languages through content: A counterbalanced approach. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

The Canadian Press. (2017, Nov 30). Quebec passes motion for store clerks to stop saying ‘bonjour, hi’. Retrieved from globalnews.ca/news/3889852/quebec-passes-motion-for-store-clerks-to-stop-saying-bonjour-hi/?utm_source=%40Global_Montreal&utm_medium=Twitter.

Unnamed School Board (1972) Proposal re teaching of French in local schools. Unnamed school board: unpublished report.

Weinstock, D. (2014, Sept 15). Language in Quebec Schools: It’s Time for a Rethink. Retrieved from http://induecourse.ca/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *