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New book explores the ABCs of university-level French immersion

Few Canadian universities offer French-immersion programs, yet such programs abound at the primary and secondary levels. A new book looks at this scarcity and offers solutions to foster new programs.


In 2012, at an international scholarly forum in Ottawa on the topic of French immersion at universities, the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, Graham Fraser, lamented the almost total absence of these programs in Canada. As it stands, they are only offered at the University of Ottawa, York University’s Glendon College, the University of Alberta’s St‑Jean campus and Simon Fraser University.

That more than 340,000 Canadian elementary and high school students are enrolled in French immersion makes this lack of university-level immersion even more shameful, said Mr. Fraser. He noted that when these students finish Grade 12 and face a lack of opportunities to pursue immersion, most return to English-language institutions – it seems a waste to invest so much effort in elementary and high school, only to give up at the postsecondary level.

Building a French-immersion pedagogy

At the same event, organizers Hélène Knoerr and Alysse Weinberg, professors at the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute at the University of Ottawa, listened attentively to Aline Gohard-Radenkovic, a guest speaker from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. She argued that a unique teaching method must be developed for university-level French immersion. None existed, and methods developed for elementary and secondary schools could not be applied to postsecondary institutions. A new paradigm was needed.

“As we talked, we quickly determined that since this education didn’t exist, we had to create it, and we decided to tackle it together,” Dr. Knoerr said. Thus began a project that would lead to L’immersion française à l’université : politiques et pédagogies, an edited essay collection published in French by the University of Ottawa Press. (The book will also be featured at a symposium on immersion at the University of Ottawa in May 2017.)

A flexible, adaptable framework

In addition to surveying existing university French-immersion programs, the book sets out an administrative, methodological and educational framework for implementing such initiatives. In doing so, it tries to account for the highly diverse needs and means of different institutions. For example, some 25 students attend the immersion program at SFU, while U of Ottawa welcomes 700 each year. Clearly, different tools need to be devised.

“We had to develop a three-pronged framework: policies and funding to foster these programs, services and support for students and faculty in various disciplines, and defining the specific needs of each university based on its circumstances,” Dr. Knoerr explained. “For example, the University of Ottawa is bilingual and offers every program of study in both languages. Introducing and maintaining an immersion program would be easier there than at an institution starting from scratch.”

Naturally, Dr. Knoerr hopes that the book will help address the challenges preventing the development of university-level French immersion programs. After all, elementary and high schools have had French immersion since the 1960s.

“We hope that our book will encourage university administrators to offer these opportunities and that it will inspire students to be adventurous,” Dr. Knoerr said. “It may even spur other countries to introduce similar programs, such as Spanish immersion programs in the United States. The framework developed in the book is not limited to Canada or the French language.”

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  1. JD / December 5, 2016 at 21:04

    This story is inaccurate. There is an important French immersion program at Université Sainte-Anne. I know because I graduated from it, and then I went on to get a BA in French literature from Sainte-Anne, where all the undergraduate courses are offered in French (except for those in English lit). Many students take university-level classes at Sainte-Anne through a summer program funded by the federal government (it used to be Heritage Canada and probably still is). Quite of lot of those students then continue to take French immersion clases during the regular academic year. In order to take normal undergrad-level classes at Sainte-Anne towards a BA or BSc, students whose first language is not French are tested upon arrival, and if their French isn’t strong enough they automatically go into the immersion program until it is. Université Sainte-Anne is located in an Acadian community and the surrounding area is francophone. Most of the professors are either Acadian or Québécois. It’s an excellent environment for French immersion, and it’s very strange indeed that it’s not mentionned in this story. Either the author of this story, or Graham Fraser, hasn’t done his homework. If Mr. Fraser isn’t aware of the university’s existence, that is disturbing indeed.

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