During this time of confinement due to coronavirus, children educated in French outside Québec are less-frequently exposed to the French language. Studies have shown that exposure is vital to maintaining their skills. It is safe to assume that exposure is also necessary for children to undertake online learning in French successfully.
In Canada outside of Québec, there are approximately 3.9 million children enrolled in schools. More than half a million of them, or 12.8 per cent, are educated in French. According to Statistics Canada, 430,119 students (11 per cent of all students in Canada outside Québec) were enrolled in French immersion programs and 167,259 students (four per cent) in French-language schools in 2017-18.
The linguistic context, expectations, teaching approach, social context, classroom dynamics, teachers and students vary considerably between French schools outside Québec in Canada and French-immersion schools. This is because the former were established to teach in ways that assume children’s first language is French and to protect linguistic rights in a minority-language context, and immersion programs are intended for the linguistic majority learning a second language.
That said, in 2018, the vast majority of students in kindergarten classes in French-language schools in northeastern Ontario were anglophone.
Who attends French-language schools?
The intent of Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to preserve and promote both French and English as official languages of Canada. Section 23 stipulates which citizens hold rights to have their children receive school instruction in an official language minority context (and how these rights can be exercised). For example, if parents are francophones or went to French school in Ontario, they hold rights to French-language education in Ontario for their children.
A 2016 report by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages indicates that between 1986 and 2006, the estimated number of children aged five to 17 who were eligible for French-language education under Section 23 of the Charter decreased continuously by over one-quarter.
According to Statistics Canada, the overall population of French speakers outside Québec got smaller between 1971 to 2016. In 1981, 4.9 per cent of the population outside Quebec identified French as their first official language, but the figure was 3.6 per cent in 2016.
Parents who aren’t francophones or didn’t attend French schools may still, if they wish, seek to enrol their child in a French-language school. To do so, the child and the parent must appear before an admissions committee. Many French-language schools have students whose mother tongue is English.
Maintaining French exposure
Given the current pandemic, and the confinement it imposes, many parents and teachers are concerned about maintaining the French-language skills of their children or students who live in linguistic minority communities where English predominates. With the increase in free time, and inevitably screen time, comes an increase in exposure to English among these students. According to a national study, the vast majority of children (approximately 70 per cent) consume English-language media in the home under normal circumstances. We can therefore likely assume that this consumption is increased during a lockdown.
As a speech-language pathologist and associate professor at Laurentian University, my research focuses on minority-language acquisition and maintenance in an English-dominant context and the impacts of bilingualism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on the language skills of children with developmental language disorders. I am the founder of a research and discussion group as well as the host of a podcast to raise awareness about communication.
Significant exposure to French needed
Despite differences in French-language and French immersion schooling, there is one thing that brings these two modes of teaching and learning together: in order to learn and maintain a language, whether it is our first or second language, we must be sufficiently exposed to it. It is imperative that children have several opportunities to hear and use the language.
According to a Canadian study, bilingual children must be exposed to a language at least 40 per cent of their waking hours in order to understand it as well as a native speaker of that language. However, a minimum of 60 per cent of exposure is necessary in order for the expressive vocabulary of bilingual children to be comparable to that of monolingual native speakers of that language. Thus, in order to achieve proficiency in French, children need rich, consistent and quality interactions in that language.
How can the French language be preserved during the pandemic when exposure to it is drastically reduced?
Several school boards have posted strategies on their websites to help parents increase exposure to French during the pandemic. For example, watching English television programs dubbed into French (such as on Netflix), watching French television programs (ICI TOU.TV for example), using French applications such as Jeux pour lire for younger children and 1jour1actu for teens, listening to podcasts in French, reading books in French, listening to audio books (such as from Audible), chatting with friends and extended family members, video chatting, etc.
Strategies to maintain French
Most of the strategies listed above are passive in nature, meaning that children hear French, but are not required to actively use it. The saying “use it or lose it” is relevant. It’s important to create opportunities during the day when children use French, either orally or in writing. This allows them to consolidate what they’ve learned and develop the skills that will help them maintain the minority language.
I have prepared resources for parents with many of the strategies listed above, among others. They can be found on my website. These strategies include creating videos or photo albums with French subtitles, video calls with French-speaking family members, using applications that require word spelling (such as Scrabble) and speaking key words throughout the day. These words are more sustained or literary words that are not necessarily encountered in children’s daily lives, but are very important for school learning as well as for reading comprehension.
I have recorded episodes of The Parlé Podcast in French and English to help parents choose these key words and use them in a variety of contexts. Several studies have shown that even children in preschool and kindergarten can learn them and that the benefits are many. In fact, the vocabulary understood by kindergarten students is strongly related to the end of seventh grade vocabulary and reading comprehension.
Better a little than none at all
However, even with the strategies listed in this article, it remains difficult for many families to achieve a level of exposure to French of 40 to 60 per cent of the child’s waking hours. These strategies, whether passive or active, rely on the support of parents already overworked by the countless tasks that have been added to their daily activities since COVID-19 disruptions.
One thing is certain, doing a little is better than doing nothing. The important thing is to establish a home routine to try to increase exposure to French. Parents need to find opportunities for their child to speak French every day and stick to it. This can be a meal, a particular activity such as bath time, a TV show, reading a book, video chatting with family members or with French-speaking friends. When organizing video calls, I suggest making a plan to give structure to the conversation.
For younger children, it can be a kind of scavenger hunt (for example, describing something yellow in a room, what they ate for breakfast). For older children, it can be a discussion about a French-language program that they’re watching. Activities for video calls can be found on my website.
Should we expect a decline of French language skills in children from bilingual or anglophone homes? Only time will tell.