I followed the French Immersion program growing up, and as an adult, when applying for a job in the field of education, I considered myself fluent in French. Ask me to teach Science, Math, Social Studies, etc. in French, not a problem. I can provide clear instructions for the students, cover grammar-related questions, and with regards to their educational inquiries I could maintain a free-flowing conversation with students at an acceptable level. So, when I applied for a job at the American School of Doha as a French as a Second Language (FSL) teacher, I thought nothing of it. Can I speak French? Absolutely! Wrong; it turns out I could not speak conversational French because I had only been taught academic French. This insight hit me when I opened the textbooks I was meant to use, and realized I had no idea how to use French in a real-world context, which is what the FSL curriculum teaches – I did not know how to order food at a restaurant, how to telephone a friend and discuss interests on a social level, how to book a hotel room, how to maintain a conversation with a clerk at a store, etc. I do not think I am alone in this realization; from speaking with childhood friends who have followed the French Immersion program, we all agree, throw us in a room full of Francophones and ask us to communicate on a social level – we will freeze up.
My daughter is now at the age where I could have enrolled her in the French Immersion program, and yet I chose not to. As an educator I have read the research on the benefits of learning an additional language, and I agree with these studies; that being said, I feel that the French Immersion curriculum needs to be revisited. The goal of the program should not only be to teach students academic French, but also to instruct them in conversational French. I feel that the majority of students who follow the program never end up using French in their chosen careers because unless you are a teacher in the French Immersion program, the language you do know isn’t useful in a real-world context. As a mother, I would prefer that my daughter learns French through the FSL program currently offered at schools purely so it will benefit her in whatever career path she chooses, and whichever French speaking locations she may travel to.
There’s no disputing the fact that learning additional languages offers many benefits; we as educators must re-evaluate the purpose of our programs and ensure that what students are learning will in fact benefit them in an everyday context, and not just in the classroom.