Learning a second language has had an immense impact on my life as a student, an employee and on the day to day interactions I have. It’s an experience and a skill that can be beneficial to any life. It’s not easy to learn a language, but it’s a culturally enriching and rewarding experience. I recommend that everyone think about learning a second language, but it does take a lot of time and effort, so if you do not have the time to dedicate to it, or if other tasks will fall by the wayside while you learn, you may want to consider putting it off. If you’re considering it for your child, you will want to make sure they are keeping up with learning their first language, because it can get confusing learning two languages at once if your first one isn’t solidified yet.
A lot of people think that they won’t be able to learn a language as an adult, but this is not true. Even though studies show that the best time to learn a language while you’re young, it is certainly not impossible for adults to learn new languages. I read a quote recently and I’m not sure who said it, but it really resonated with me: “The best time to plant an apple tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Despite all the “should haves” and “could haves” that we can think of when it comes to learning a language, the only productive thing we can do is to start right now.
When I was starting school, the local school in my area began to offer a French Immersion class for incoming Kindergarten students and a few grades above. Unfortunately for me, my older brother was enrolled in this class as it was a JK/SK/1 split class, and my parents didn’t want us in the same class. So I didn’t get to go into French Immersion until I was in Senior Kindergarten. But while my brother learned, I was able to learn some of the initial vocabulary and sentences alongside him. Then the next year, when they had two different classes of Immersion students, we were both enrolled in the program. As we learned, it was a little like my brother and I had a secret language that our parents didn’t know, and it helped us become closer as siblings. Going through school while learning a second language was great, I was learning about French culture, and it didn’t seem to impact my ability to learn all the complexities of the English language. We started having English classes in grade three, and although we all spoke English we learned the grammar and writing concepts while continuing to learn the French equivalents.
As I got into older grades, I began to notice some things, the first; being all the English words that have the same bases as French words. A specific example that comes to mind is the word percent. In English, if you are unfamiliar with cent being one hundred, it can be confusing to figure out what this concept is actually asking. In French, we learned at an early age that “cent” is the word for one hundred and that “pour” is for. When the word “pourcent” was introduced in math, it was easy to understand that it was just a value out of 100. So even though we were learning math, our French vocabulary helped to clarify the meaning. The second thing that I noticed was that our classes were so much smaller than their English counterparts. Despite having two different grade levels, they were years that we had fewer than 20 students in our class, and at my school, that was considered a small class. The teacher seemed to have time to ensure that all students were succeeding and I no students were ever overlooked. Having split classes also seemed to help; I was always the higher grade, so we got a little review when the lower grade level was being taught. I also imagine that the lower grade level got an early introduction to more advanced concepts, so it could have helped them to prepare better for the next grade, but I can’t say for sure as I was not in this situation. Another thing I noticed was the effect my French education had on family. My parents were picking up on the vocabulary and sentence structure as my brother and I were learning, even now, my dad can speak French very well and has a high level of vocabulary despite not having taken French classes.
For middle school, I switched schools in order to go to a specialized French middle school. With this school, most activities were in French, all announcements, the national anthem and assemblies were also all in French, it was a much more immersive environment than my previous school. There were also students there who were transition to French immersion, so there were two programs, an “Early Immersion” and a “Late Immersion”. The late immersion students were experiencing immersion for the first time and this program allowed them to advance their skills to start high school at the same level as the early immersion students. So even though they had not always taken French classes, they were able to learn enough to be near the same level as the students that had always taken it.
For high school, I once again attended a school with a French immersion program, but not everyone was in the program. The classes here were the ones that challenged me the most. The classes that were immersion classes but with a subject regular subject were not super challenging, I had always taken these subjects in French. The classes that really advanced my French abilities were my French language classes. The teachers in these classes and the curriculum asked a lot more of us than previous classes and the focus really shift to learning the complexities of the grammar and social conversation. One of my high school teachers was the reason for this advancement; he made sure that we were able to speak in French with the politeness and fluency that is expected of everyday conversation. Our final project in grade 12 was actually to do a mock interview for University with our teacher and convince him why we were good candidates. This got us to speak in French in a way we had never before; while trying to impress someone. It was probably the best preparation for real interviews and applying for jobs that I’ve ever had.
As I was graduating, I didn’t go into French for college, I actually went into chemistry. But I truly believe that being a French speaking student gave me a couple extra bonus marks on my University applications. I also took some French courses in University in order to maintain my abilities and fluency. Afterwards, I have found that my French is likely one of the reasons I have gotten some of my jobs. It seems to be a little something extra that looks great on an application and gives me a competitive edge as an employee.
In my professional life, my French language skills continue to be useful. Even though I live and work in an area where the majority of people speak English, I have had many clients with whom I communicate with in French. Being the only French speaking person in the office, I am relied on by my coworkers to have the skills required to assist these clients effectively. I have also been able to make use of my French speaking abilities in my travels. I haven’t travelled a lot, but being able to speak French while in Quebec, Canada or while in France really helped with directions, finding my way around, and even things as simple as ordering dinner.
There are a number of things to consider when thinking about enrolling a student into an immersion program. First, think about if the student will be able to handle it. If they are already struggling with reading, writing or math in their native language, it may just complicate things to reintroduce everything in a new language. And you may think that math and sciences wouldn’t be affected by immersion programs, but different school boards have different policies on which subjects would be taught in English and which would be taught in the new language. It tends to be the younger grades that have all subjects in the new language, and in older grades certain subjects may switch to English instruction.
A common misconception is that students in immersion programs struggle with reading and writing in their native language, which is usually English, and thus don’t succeed as well with these classes. This isn’t always the case. For me I feel that learning French actually helped my English skills, and vice versa. Again, it depends on the student and if they are ready to learn a second language. They need a fairly solid foundation in the first language before they start learning a second one. If you don’t think your child is ready and you choose not to enroll them when they are in Kindergarten, that’s fine. There are plenty of options later to move into an immersion program or to learn the language at a different level. Even if all you do is take one introductory course, you will still develop some skills and be able to express yourself better than if you had not taken the course.
Should you decide that you or your child, are ready to learn a second language, you may be looking into several options and it is important to know what each offers. First, there are several levels of second language studies. For elementary school kids, there are two levels that I am aware of here in Canada. There is Immersion and there is Core. Immersion means complete immersive French; all subjects are taught in French, and later, some English classes would be added. In core, this is what most Canadians refer to as a regular stream. All instruction is in English, until in upper grades when they start having mandatory French classes. Then when middle school and high school roll around, there are three options in school. The first is immersion which again, has many subjects taught in French. The next is core, for those who only took French classes for a few years in elementary school. The last is called extended immersion, and is for students who either recently transitioned to immersion, or those who excelled in Core and wish to learn more. However outside of school there are other options for people to learn new languages. I often seen ads for classes, there are computer programs to teach languages and there is even the online route. Someone I know has actually joined a language learning group online and has Skype sessions with people from all over the world so that she can practice her French and they can practice their English. Other people even travel and immerse themselves in language and culture so that they have no other option but to learn. There are so many options out there for learning languages; all you have to do is take the first step.
Learning a language is a great experience for anyone to have, no matter their age or skill level. There are immense professional benefits, but there are also personal benefits. You grow as a person when you learn a language. You diversify your interests and increase your ability to communicate with people. So when you have the time, pick up a language. There are plenty of websites and resources out there. Learn a language and see what doors open up for you!
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