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Education former lieutenant-governor says province isn't starting second language training early enough [CA-PE]

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Telegraph Journal
McHardie, Daniel
Publication Date: 
7 Aug 2008

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Former lieutenant-governor Margaret Norrie McCain believes New Brunswick should have abolished French immersion and replaced it with a universal system of "enriched, extended" French for all children.

McCain is an expert on early childhood development and is advising the province's cabinet committee on designing a system of specialized sites that will offer a wide range of integrated services to children and parents.

"I supported the government's plan and I would have abolished the French immersion altogether, because I think there are better ways of acquiring second-language proficiency," McCain said in an interview.

"The science of language acquisition shows us that the best time for it to happen is when the brain is malleable and developing the language function is between six months and two years."

McCain said her quarrel with the French immersion program is that it creates an elitist system that funnels the best students to one stream and leaving behind classrooms that have a difficult time achieving high standards.

The Liberal government rolled out its new plan for French second-language education on Tuesday. The program will have a universal kindergarten to Grade 2 system that introduces French in separate modules focused on art, songs and games. Immersion will begin in Grade 3 and students don't enter the program will be required to take an intensive French course by Grade 5.

The department is keeping Grade 6 late immersion and allowing any student who achieves an intermediate level of French after Grade 10 to take French courses in their final two years of high school.

The revised plan was a result of a public furor caused by parents of immersion students who protested the government's original intention to set back to Grade 5 the beginning of immersion instruction in New Brunswick schools. The heart of the issue was the lack of public consultation conducted by the Department of Education on the change. Parents sought a court ruling and won, forcing the government seek public input before it released its current program.

McCain called the policy change "a concession to the parents who were very loudly protesting."

"Every child, not just 20 per cent (in immersion), get enriched, extended core French across the board," McCain said.

McCain is helping the province devise a system of integrated early childhood development centres. The Department of Social Development has $400,000 set aside this year to set up four of these centres.

"If the centres get rolled out to the two-year-old level, that is where the centres will be the most effective," she said. "When you introduce the language there, that is when you will have much more language proficiency there."

The province's education minister said he couldn't develop his new system around the concept of the early childhood centres.

"At this point we're talking about four or five pilot sites, and I would not be building a universal education system around what will be very meritorious projects, but are not yet universal curriculum," Lamrock said.

New Brunswick Senator Marilyn Trenholme Counsell, also a former lieutenant-governor, said she too believes these early childhood centres should be teaching a second language.
But she also stresses the importance that parents can play in raising bilingual children.
"I think the parents should be introducing both languages before (the children) get to kindergarten," Trenholme Counsell said. "This could be the beginning to a more significant and much greater movement in New Brunswick in terms of raising a new generation of bilingual New Brunswickers."

Trenholme Counsell differs from McCain in that she opposed the government's first model for second-language instruction. She said she informed the Liberal government of her displeasure, so she is heartened by the reformed plan.

"I think they have been responsive to the people. I think they have reached a very fair compromise, we will only know in a few years if it is working," she said. "I'm very satisfied that they will have more testing because there hasn't been nearly enough testing or rigor in the system."

As the province's lieutenant-governor, Trenholme Counsell spent much of her time focusing on literacy issues.

So when it comes to raising generations of bilingual children, she said it is crucial to start early.

"This can be helpful because we know the more you expand the brain the more you stimulate the neurons in a child's brain the more capable they are in learning anything," she said.

- reprinted from Telegraph Journal