A deeper dive into French immersion

Posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Two women, smiling and wearing glasses, stand in front of an interior brick wall.

Lena Michel and Professor Marie-Josée Vignola, who have been collaborating on French immersion research.

By Rebecca MacFarlane
A young woman, smiling and wearing glasses, sits at an outdoor café with a tall beverage topped with whipped cream on the table in front of her.

Lena Michel at a café in Jena, Germany.

It all began with an email. Last winter, Professor Marie-Josée Vignola of the Faculty of Education received an inquiry from a graduate student in Europe asking if she would consider acting as her research supervisor for a semester.

Lena Michel, a master’s student at Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany, with a special interest in second-language teaching, wanted to come to uOttawa to study French immersion programs in Canada. Before reaching out, she did her homework on the University and on Vignola’s specializations. Struck by Michel’s initiative, the professor was happy to oblige.

“I was so impressed with how much she knew about Canadian French immersion programs, so I had a good feeling from the start,” Vignola said.

The multi-step process of bringing Michel to Canada included obtaining permission from the Dean of the Faculty of Education, writing a letter of invitation, and obtaining research ethics approval. Finally, Lena Michel arrived on campus in August 2016 equipped the rare status of visiting student researcher.

Michel and Vignola wasted no time initiating a variety of research activities to explore how French immersion teachers in the Ottawa region perceive immersion programs. In addition, Michel volunteered in a Grade 1 class at Elgin Street Public School, working closely with French immersion teachers there.

A young woman, wearing a backpack, kneels down beside a road in a woods to feed a carrot to a young doe.

Lena Michel visiting Parc Oméga in Québec.

She also volunteered at the 40th convention of l’Association canadienne des professeurs d’immersion (ACPI), a Canadian association of immersion teachers, where she took part in workshops and interviewed attendees on their perceptions of French immersion. She was happy to accept the association’s invitation to write a blog post recounting her experience.

Vignola organized other activities for Michel to ensure that she made  the most of her time on campus. Michel audited courses on second language education and attended a roundtable discussion with representatives from various second-language teaching associations. As a result, Michel is now also a member of these organizations and intends to maintain her membership in them when she returns to Germany this month. She has also been invited to join EducLang, a group conducting research on language teaching and learning that was recently launched at the Faculty of Education.

“It wouldn’t have been good for me to stay in Germany and just write about these organizations from afar,” Michel said. “It’s so much better that I experience all this in person, especially since the original model of French immersion was conceived in Canada.”

She also credits the success of this unique opportunity to her collaboration with Professor Vignola. “None of this would have happened without her. This kind of experience doesn’t occur without the support of a great supervisor.” As for what the future holds, Michel is seriously considering coming back to uOttawa to pursue a PhD.

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