Should I send my child to a French school?

A Montreal mom weighs the pros and cons of sending her anglophone child to school in another language

Three years ago, we interviewed Jane Nakano about the decision to enrol her eldest son in a French school. Now, we check back in with her to see if it was the right decision.

Long before she had her first child, Jane Nakano had made up her mind that her kids would attend French school. “I didn’t want them to be like me, always feeling shy to speak French,” says Nakano, who grew up in Quebec but attended English schools. “I wanted them to have every opportunity this province has to offer them and not to have language as a barrier.”

But Nakano admits that once her first-born, Matthew, was ready to start school in 2004, the decision became more complicated. Her son was shy and she worried about how he would adapt to an all-French environment. It didn’t help that most of the other families in their neighbourhood were opting for French immersion programs at English schools.

“It was a very stressful time,” Nakano says. “I thought about it for almost a year. But what made the decision easier was the knowledge that I could always switch him back to the English system if we needed to. I really think that was our saving grace.”

The need for a switch never happened. Matthew started at École Pointe Claire and has been thriving ever since. “He is now in Grade 3 and perfectly comfortable in an all-French environment,” Nakano says. He can switch back and forth from French to English — it’s not an issue for him.”

Nakano adds that the support Matthew received at school helped ease the transition into French (the family speaks English almost all the time at home) and has ensured he is able to keep up with his peers. Matthew was placed in a kindergarten class with other children whose mother tongue wasn’t French so he wouldn’t feel completely alone.

The school’s teachers also keep a close eye on all the non-francophone children and offer supplementary help when needed. For example, in kindergarten, a specialist worked with the children on French vocabulary three or four times a week. There are also people available to help with homework after school. A spokesperson for the Marguerite Bourgeoys school board says children whose mother tongue is not French will either be placed in a "classe d'accueil" if they speak no French or, if they have some French skills, integrated into a regular classroom, but with various support services to ensure their academic progress.

One of Nakano’s big concerns about French school was her ability to help Matthew with his homework. However, her son’s teachers soon let her know that she didn’t have to correct work she didn’t understand — they were there to ensure Matthew understood the assignments.

“I realized that he has the best resources — the teachers — for learning,” she says. Instead, Nakano makes sure her son does his homework but she doesn’t worry about mistakes he might make. The teacher will point them out.

Nakano’s other principle worry was not feeling comfortable enough in French to volunteer at and be part of the school community. “You want to be involved in your child’s school and relate to other parents,” she says. “But if you don’t feel comfortable speaking French, it can be hard.”

Despite her shyness over speaking French, Nakano volunteers at the school. She has accompanied the class on field trips and helps out at the library once a week. “It is harder than if I were at an English school, but I’m doing this for the benefit of my child, not for my own comfort,” she adds.

Nakano has no regrets about her family’s decision. In fact, last year her son Alex started at the same school as his brother. She did take the precaution of obtaining English eligibility certificates for her children, in case they want to attend high school in English, or if her sons someday want to send their children to school in English. And she admits that Matthew’s written English leaves something to be desired. “But that doesn’t concern me in the least because I know I can help him with it.”

As she observes her boys studying in French, Nakano says she would make the same decision if she had to do it over again.

“It’s been such a positive experience. The fact that the kids are so confident in French is a huge thing for me. That was my goal: to have them be comfortable living and working in this province when they grow up.”

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