Making a Case for Mandatory French in Schools
By Debbie Foster *
It has been 35 years since Quebec passed Bill 101, defining French as the official language of Quebec. This meant that the language of instruction from kindergarten to secondary school became French. At the time, immigration was increasing in the region and parents were anxious to enroll their children in schools where they may be challenged because of their lack of familiarity with the language.
Even today, many children of immigrant do not have a functional ability of French when they arrive in Quebec. The classe d’accueil, directly translated as a welcoming class, was created as a separate classroom in Quebec to get these children up to speed in French and Quebec’s school curriculum before they could attend classes with the French speaking students. Now that over three decades have passed since the Bill’s inception, two women reflect on their experiences studying in French in Quebec and the impact that it has had on their lives.
Learning the language:
In 1989, Dana was eight years old when she arrived in Montreal with her family from Romania, after having spent a year in Greece before making their way to Canada. Dana was able to carry on a conversation in English but had no French language ability. Everything about life in Montreal was new to her; it was here that she rode her first school bus. She remembers her father taking her for her interview at her new school where her French level was assessed as beginner.
The language barrier quickly hit home. Feeling overwhelmed on her first day of class, Dana remembers asking her teacher if she could call her mother, yet was unable to express this in French. With the teacher not understanding her, Dana was getting nowhere. “I was so sad,” she recalls.
Things got easier. After ten months in her classe d’acceuil, studying with children from all over the world, she was able to attend regular Grade 5 classes. This progress was not lost on young Dana. It was clear to her that being part of the classe d’acceuil made her different than her peers, and she had worked hard to successfully move up and out.
Falling for French
Vivi was 15 when she moved to Montreal with her parents and two brothers. This was her fourth move from Peru in five years. Her father loved travelling and he and his family uprooted from Peru to live in California, Florida and New York before settling in Montreal. He chose Montreal specifically so that his children could learn a third language. As a teenager, Vivi was not at all pleased with the latest family upheaval and she refused to learn another language after spending five years studying English in the US.
All of that changed when she started attending her classe d’acceuil. She credits her teacher with creating a harmonious classroom atmosphere, where students with different French levels, backgrounds and ages, “couldn’t resist her charms. You had no choice but to like French.” Fresh from her studies in the US, where immigrant children could spend their whole studies in English Second Language (ESL) classes, Vivi was encouraged by Quebec’s system, whose goal is to get these students out of their classe d’acceuil as soon as possible and into the regular system.
Dana’s father would have likely enrolled her into English school, while Vivi believes she could have convinced her parents into allowing her to attend English school, had this been an option. Fast forward some fifteen to twenty years later, and both of these women view their studies in French positively. Dana grew up in a predominantly English region of Montreal and her life outside of school was mainly English. Because of this, she doubts her French would have been as good as it is had she attended English school. Vivi, now 32, agrees wholeheartedly, noting the importance of learning French, as “it is going to help you not only in Quebec, but everywhere.”
Both women acknowledge that their knowledge of French has helped them professionally. It has helped Vivi obtain work in Montreal, where bilingualism is often required. Also, it has enriched her interactions with her Francophone colleagues. Currently based in Ottawa, Dana’s French ability has been an asset and has opened many professional opportunities to her. While French may not be required in her career as an Accountant, it does give her a professional edge and projects have come her way specifically because she speaks the language. While the initial transition into French public school may have been challenging, “was it better for me in the long-term?” Dana asks herself, “absolutely.”
5 Reasons why you should learn French in Canada:
1) It’s good for you: Studies have shown that learning another language stimulates your brain and develops your patience and discipline.
2) Key to Top Government Jobs: Since both English and French are Canada’s official languages, many federal government positions in Ottawa require knowledge of both languages.
3) International Mobility: Knowing French will make you more competitive both in Canada and abroad.
4) Cultural understanding: Knowledge of French can lead to cultural appreciation and understanding.
5) It’s Free: Both the federal and Quebec government offer free programs and courses encouraging people to learn the language.
[Source: CanadianImmigrant.ca © Star Media Group]