Friday, March 07, 2008

Immersion and Bilingualism

Opposition to bilingualism is silly. There have been various efforts to explain it away -- fear, concerns about job security, etc. -- but none of these really hold too much water. Opposition to bilingualism is about as backwards as it comes and the reasons for this have been so thoroughly discussed that I won't even bother to go into them here because anyone who reads can look them up for themselves.

So ... why mention this? If opposition to bilingualism is so backwards as to not merit comment, why even raise the issue. Because I want to talk about something else: immersion education in NB. Recently, French-language immersion is under consideration yet again in New Brunswick and it is possible that early immersion programmes may be eliminated. Apparently, there are concerns that there is a need to have a solid handle on one's mother tongue before one learns another language. I actually doubt the merits of this argument, but I recognize that it is legitimate scholarly argument that has been made by sincere individuals who have studied the matter in some detail. I don't debate, therefore, the seriousness and sincerity of those who would put forward an argument against early immersion on this grounds. I think they are wrong, but that is a matter of debate.

What I worry about is that opposition to bilingualism and bilingual education is being smuggled in under the cover of something else: concern for children. I live in a part of New Brunswick where immersion programmes had to be wrung out of a local schoolboard who opposed them (against the wishes of parents) and where there have been campaigns to end immersion. Recently, a group of parents in my town argued that immersion is unfair to kids whose parents have them in a unilingual English-language educational programme. Let's put this matter to rest. These arguments hold no weight.

First, to oppose immersion education one needs to demonstrate that learning other languages is somehow bad for kids. I teach at Mount Allison University and we see all kinds of students. Over the last ten years, I've taught thousands of students, some good and some bad; some bilingual (French/English) and some not. The ability to speak other languages was never the defining feature of what made for a good or bad student. What made for a good or bad student was that student's ability to commit to the work they needed to put into their programme to succeed. In other words, individual effort has been the defining feature of a good student; not linguistic ability.

Second, if bilingualism in education is so bad ... why are so many countries in the world doing it? Language education is fundamental to the educational programmes of a number of European countries. If the argument that immersion were somehow bad for students held weight countries like Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and Denmark would be filled with a bunch of people who never succeeded. Yet ... they ain't. Most of the rest of the world is busy trying to learn other language and get their kids to learn them. Why would we, in Canada, believe that they are wrong?

Third, I simply fail to see how knowing other languages is bad for kids. It opens up other literatures and other musics, other poetries and other cultures. How can this be bad. Think of a parent making the converse argument: I have improved my child's life by confining the limits of their knowledge and impeding their ability to understand different thing. Would any parent who was committed to the welfare of their child actually say this: that they intentionally limited their child's knowledge of the world?

Fourth, I can't see how children are helped by limiting their ability to compete in the labour market. Again, can you imagine a parent saying this: I have decided to improve my child's life by reducing the number of jobs for which they will be qualified. What would we think of a parent who did this.

Finally, it is important to note that in NB, immersion is a choice. If you don't like it -- if there are parents who decide it is in their children's best interest to not know French -- then so be it. That is there choice and they have a democratic right to make that choice for their children. I would never argue against that (even if I disagree with it). Unless a parent is mistreating a child, I don't think I (or, anyone else) should be so arrogant as to tell them how they should raise their kids. We might offer advise to friends, ask advise of other friends, but that is something different than urging the state to exercise its authority over parents to limit their choices with regard to the education of their children. And ... that's my point: its a choice. Why would anyone want to eliminate my choices. If I choose to send my kids to immersion, that is a choice my wife and I have made. It has nothing to do with anyone else's child. They are free to make their own choices. Yet, this is precisely what the opponents of immersion want to do. They want to eliminate my ability to make choices in the best interest of my children. They are the one's urging the state to take away choice and to exercise authority over me in ways that limit my children's educational options. In effect, the opponents of immersion are arguing saying "not only will I choose to keep my child out of bilngual educaiton but I claim the right to make that choice for your child as well and I want the state to come in and enforce it with the power of law."

This is what I mean when I say opposition to bilingualism is silly. I don't mean the reasoned and evidence based arguments among educators. I urge them to look at evidence from a range of different locations where there is a strong commitment to language education and talk to those of us who work in higher education to see if there are problems with bilingual education. But, I trust they are acting out of a commitment to evidence and reason. I can work with that and I respect that. Those people who have tried to eliminate immersion for other reasons, however, cause me great pause. They seek to eliminate a form of education that has been used and works in other countries. As countries around the world strive to increase linguistic competence, those who oppose immersion seek to limit that competence here at home. They seek to limit the degree to which our children can access and enjoy other literatures and other cultures, in other words to impede their education. And, they promote a form of education that would make it more difficult for our kids to compete in the labour market. Finally, they ignore democracy and seek to use the state to impose their views on parents who would make other choices.

There will always be debates about the best way to education kids and about the best pedagogical tactics. I actually think its good to have an open and on-going debate about the best way to educate kids. We can all learn from it. Opposition to immersion is not about a constructive debate. Its about something else. Its about one group of people attempting to impose a form of education that limits children's education, making it less then it could have been. Should we let others impose limits on our kids? Should we let others impede our kids ability to learn? I hope not.
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