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Benefits of learning a new language early

Bilingualism is a unique part of Canada's national identity and that's reflected in the language programs offered at schools throughout the country. The most popular of these is French Immersion, available at various schools on the North Shore.

Bilingualism is a unique part of Canada's national identity and that's reflected in the language programs offered at schools throughout the country.

The most popular of these is French Immersion, available at various schools on the North Shore.

Benefits to learning a second language are numerous, according to Robert Rothon, executive director of Canadian Parents for French, B.C. and Yukon branch, a non-profit organization that advocates for French programs for youth.

"Learning another language . . . always profits the child. It enhances cognitive development. Children who speak more than one language generally do better academically than unilingual children," says Rothon.

"Speaking more than one language and learning more than one language really seems to help a child fire at all cylinders, intellectually speaking."

Early immersion starts in kindergarten with 100 per cent of classes being taught in French until Grade 3 in North Vancouver and Grade 4 in West Vancouver, after which English language arts is added to the curriculum. Late immersion starts in Grade 6 with all classes offered in French for that year and English re-introduced in Grade 7. The number of classes offered in French then tapers off in high school, making up 25 per cent of the schedule in the senior years.

Once outside of the school system, having a background in French can open up more job opportunities for students, says Rothon.

"(They) are citizens that are able to work in either official language community, that could work anywhere in Canada and not be at a disadvantage."

As far as improvements for the program go, Rothon says Canadian Parents for French would like to see the need for waiting lists or lottery systems eliminated.

"Demand generally outstrips capacity and that's always an issue. . . . Basically what we would really like to see is guaranteed access to French immersion and we'd like to see it through provincial legislation."

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A newer movement that's been floating around the North Shore for the past couple of years is the idea of having a Mandarin bilingual program in schools.

Slightly different from immersion, the proposal is that 50 per cent of classes be taught in Mandarin and 50 per cent in English.

Among those in support of the program is a group of more than 120 North Shore families who have formed an organization called Mandarin for B.C. schools.

"The common theme amongst all of us is we see the future in terms of the criticality of China as a worldwide power and as a language in business, Mandarin is clearly going to be one of the predominant languages spoken in business," says North Vancouver's Linda Brown, spokeswoman for the group.

"We talked and agreed that . . . this needs to be in the public school system if we want to make a go of it as something sustainable."

But with tightening budgets and school closures on the forefront right now, the idea may be on hold for a while, she adds.

Nonetheless, the West Vancouver School District recently held two Mandarin and Fun summer camps to introduce children aged 5-11 to the language.

"The kids are really getting a lot out of it they're loving it and we're hoping in the future we can continue something like that but as always it's based on community need and our ability to provide space and classrooms," says Jill Johnson, manager of community learning for the school district.

Currently, the only space available for a Mandarin program is at Sentinel secondary, says Johnson.

"At the elementary schools we're full so because of that we haven't been able to just yet get it started. But in the future if we can create the space, for sure we'll provide the program without a doubt," she says.

"There's a very strong community on the North Shore of parents that are interested in having Mandarin in their family as a main second language. . . . A lot of people are looking at it as the language of business for the future so many people are wanting to go that route for sure."

For more information about language programs visit the school districts' websites at www.sd45.bc.ca. or www.nvsd44.bc.ca.

mkrishnan@nsnews.com