Language As Status Symbol: Immersion Programs Are All The Rage – If You Can Afford Them

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When I entered the public school system in Canada – a bilingual country, if anyone needs reminding – in the 1970s, second-language learning seemed a bit of an afterthought. It was mandatory, yes, even in English Canada. But it started in the third grade and took up about one fifteenth of a given week.

By the time I hit middle school there were options. Some schools offered late-immersion programs where French (it was nearly always French) played a larger role. By high school you were guaranteed to be somewhat conversational, a bit more analytical than the non-immersion students, and able to spell all those complicated conjugations. But you were also set up to fail, because high schools were still playing catch-up with early-years language learning. This was my experience: by the 12th grade I had lost all but the most essential French pleasantries. I wouldn’t have been able to survive even in cosmopolitan Montreal.

Today as my children enter the public school system (in another country, but anyway) language programs have become the yardstick for measuring a good institution. Language immersion starts earlier in life and covers a broader range of subjects. Families clamor to get their children into local immersion programs and use them to ease the path into better out-of-district schools. And as more minority communities gain status, schools begin to diversify, offering not only French but Spanish, Greek, Hebrew and particularly Chinese. Jewish schools, resigned to old, crusty buildings in downbeat areas in my day, are getting spanking new facilities in happier locations.

This is all great news for the children whose local schools are upping the language ante. But here’s the catch: not all schools are.

In established neighborhoods it seems schools that emphasize language study are multiplying. And in fast-gentrifying areas, once poorly rated schools are topping the charts with new and improved language programs. So who’s getting the leg up on language? The most affluent families, it would appear, have the edge.

Perhaps the stasis in less prosperous areas has to do with the proportion of immigrant families, who have to grapple with English as a second language and don’t have the luxury to dabble in the finer points of French. Or maybe it’s that the French and Spanish element in North America – along with the Chinese and Jewish communities – have more lobbying power.

Whatever the case, I’m envisioning gangs of middle-class children philosophizing in berets over their juice boxes and ordering takeout in tone-perfect Mandarin while the lower classes look on, perplexed, wondering why English suddenly isn’t quite good enough.

So what group would you want your child in?

(Photo: Jupiterimages)