School can be hard enough, without being immersed in a second language. However, language schools can offer a challenging learning environment and mastering a second language can open up job opportunities later in life.
"It’s like value-added education," says Fred Genesee, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec who has studied secondary language education for more than 30 years. "Students acquire the same levels of academic competencies, as well as picking up a second language. I don’t see any real drawbacks to attending a language school."
Both of Val Hougen’s children, Sarah in Grade 7 and Alex in Grade 3, attend Calgary French and International School in Calgary, Alberta. Hougen enrolled Sarah at the French immersion school in Kindergarten. "Sometimes people have strong feelings about language schools. They’re worried that English skills will suffer," Hougen says. "I haven’t found that. I don’t see their English skills weak or lacking." Hougen was so impressed that four years later, she enrolled Alex at the school too. Genesee says his research supports Hougen’s observation. "There is no evidence that a student’s English skills suffer at a French immersion school," he says. "A lot of the literacy skills they learn transfer to English."
Jean-Marc Wilkie, a Grade 10 student at the Calgary school, has spoken French all of his life since his mom is a Francophone from Montreal. "For me, it’s really important to keep my French," says Jean-Marc, who recently began taking the mandatory Spanish classes too. "Learning Spanish wasn’t hard at all because I’ve had English and French my whole life," he says. "I think it definitely gives us something positive to build on later."
French immersion isn’t the only language school option. Fulford Academy in Brockville, Ontario offers international students a gap year program to master their English skills before moving on to a North American boarding school or university. Students work on mastering English through English fundamentals and credit support classes. Fulford Academy also prepares its students for life in Canada with frequent evening and weekend excursions.
"It’s not just an ESL curriculum; they focus on the cultural integration, too," says Anna Galanta, admissions director at Appleby College, a boarding school in Oakville, Ontario. "The Fulford grads are well-prepared when they get here."
Haymund Fung arrived at Fulford from Hong Kong in 2008. He and his parents thought attending Fulford would better prepare him to attend a Canadian boarding school. At Fulford, Haymund had roommates from Germany, Korea and Russia. Fulford places students with kids of different backgrounds so they’re forced to speak English. "My favourite part about Fulford is the friendships I developed there," says Haymund, who is now finishing up at Appleby College and has received early acceptance into commerce programs at Ryerson and York universities.
Galanta wishes more international students would take advantage of Fulford’s curriculum. "Culturally, there’s such an apprehension about sending kids to an ESL school. These are bright kids, so parents think ‘my kid’s perfect. He doesn’t need an ESL school,’" she says. "But, no matter how bright the child is, there’s still going to be a big culture shock when they get here. Fulford can help them adapt."
How will bilingualism benefit your child?
Source: Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon task, 2004.
- Expression: With more words and phrases at their disposal, bilingual people develop the ability to think creatively and flexibly, and can more properly express their thoughts to a variety of people. They often enjoy a wider range of books, poetry and other cultural expressions rendered inaccessible to unilingual people. They may also feel a stronger connection to their ancestry from studying their family’s language and culture.
- Cognitive development: It has been found that people who can speak two or more languages are less easily distracted and have more mental capacity for storing information than their unilingual counterparts. Bilingualism also helps offset declines in mental performance that comes with age. Bilingual people tend to show a higher performance in examinations and tests and higher IQ scores.
- Employability: The global nature of today’s business world requires employees who can connect between cultures and break through language barriers. In Canada, bilingual workers are less likely to be unemployed, can enter the job market more easily and can switch jobs more easily than unilingual workers.