Issue 12 |

Second language learning and relevance – a Canadian perspective

by on December 22, 2017

I’ve looked down my nose at bilingual English- and French-speaking Canadians who neglect to teach their children French. Canada is officially a bilingual nation. While about 60% of Canadians consider English their first language, according to the most recent census, French is the mother tongue of about seven million people in a country with more than 36 million people, concentrated in Quebec and New Brunswick, with smaller francophone communities scattered across the country.

Bilingualism in Canada

The government must provide services in both official languages, including the right to use either in the courts. A strong command of both languages is required for most Federal government positions. Bilingualism among the journalistic elite at CBC (Canada’s national public broadcaster) is so prevalent that if you change the channel fast enough, you can catch a single journalist reporting on a story in English on CBC, and within minutes, in French on the sister francophone station, Radio-Canada.

Healing a fractured country? Speak both official languages

As a bilingual Canadian, I understood the importance of speaking both official languages. Our former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, (father of the current Prime Minister Trudeau), had a vision of a bilingual Canada to unify an almost fractured country. Two provincial referendums nearly led to Quebec’s separation from Canada–one in 1980, the most recent in 1995 where the “no” side narrowly defeated the separatists 50.58% to 49.42%. Three days before the 1995 referendum, tens of thousands of people flew to Montreal to join a Unity Rally, spurred on by two Canadian airlines discounting tickets by 90% for “unity fares.” A nation collectively held its breath watching the results of the vote on CBC, who broadcast shots of the crowds in the Place du Canada in downtown Montreal. An iconic image of an enormous Canadian flag held aloft in the hands of supporters is still etched in our national consciousness. Yet I was not teaching my own children French. Suddenly, I found myself on the receiving end of the sidelong glance.

Making language learning relevant

It wasn’t until embarking on a two-year sojourn in Central America that we discovered the power of relevancy. In the littler towns and villages, local children roamed in packs and swallowed up our girls in their whirlwind, climbing trees and throwing rocks into the ocean. The girls could not understand what these children were saying, but kids engaging in play don’t often need to fully understand each other to have fun. Eventually, we enrolled our two girls in a small village school in Costa Rica temporarily to take advantage of the language immersion opportunity.

Before her first day at school, our older daughter asked me to teach her some basic Spanish words and phrases, and she took on additional learning by spending hours looking up words in the dictionary and writing out their Spanish equivalent in a little notebook. Her desire to learn Spanish was driven by the basic human need to communicate with others. In just a few weeks, Spanish began to take hold. Both girls could converse with members of the community and could follow movies we rented from time to time.

What seemed rather obvious to me now eluded me before. If I recognized the importance of knowing both official languages of Canada, why not create a similar experience in Quebec, where the desire to communicate with other children became the motivation to learn French? It hit me like a wallop in the head. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? It made perfect sense that French lessons in anglophone Canada felt awkward and forced.

The idea germinated while visiting a small town on the Caribbean coast. At a backpacker’s hostel, I became friendly with the owner, a French-Canadian woman who had given up her job as an executive at a Montreal firm to live with her Costa Rican husband in a little fishing village near the Panamanian border. Her little two-year-old daughter was already mastering French and Spanish and was on the cusp of learning English as her third language.

I was extremely impressed, but my friend, a former hiring manager used to perusing stacks of CVs submitted by university graduates, had discovered that trilingualism in Montreal is not all that unusual. According to my friend, students from immigrant families tend to speak their mother tongue at home. The parents of these immigrant children, she told me, expect their kids to learn English and finally, because of the Charter of the French Language, children whose first language is anything other than English must attend French language schools. The result? A perfect recipe for a trilingual child. All three languages in their daily lives would be relevant, used often, and offer a leg up on the competition, she told me.

What advantage do these trilingual children have over others? Careers notwithstanding, it certainly must bode well for international relations. As we prepared to return home from our village in Costa Rica, I had my eye on the map of North America. In the end, we decided to cut our Central American trip short by a couple of months to expose the girls to French in Quebec.

When you enter La Belle Province by car, the totality of English slips away until a wall of French descends: street signs, music, conversations. Outside of Montreal, French dominates; except for the tourist zone in Quebec City, very little English is spoken.

We elected to reside for the spring in a tiny cabin on the outskirts of Trois-Rivières, a medium-sized city located half way between Montreal and Quebec City. I recognized instantly that the girls avoided conversations with others at the campground. This was difficult to accomplish; les Québécois are surely some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet.

The following day I drove around town looking for information on summer programs. We knew why the girls could speak Spanish so well, having been in Central America for some 19 months. Now, faced with just seven weeks before we were scheduled to return to our former lives in Ontario, I lowered my expectations regarding how much French they could learn. I enrolled the girls in the city-run day camp, hoping that the immersion experience would be fun for the girls and that, in anticipation of making new friends, their desire to communicate in French with their fellow day-campers would ramp up their motivation to learn it.

I was right. The girls initiated mini-lessons for about a week before the camp began, asking me to review basic phrases. Around the small dining table in that cabin surrounded by Canadian pine and the drone of a thousand mosquitoes flinging themselves against the window screen, we had funny family discussions around a bowl of fruit that went something like: J’ai une banane, combien de pommes as-tu? (I have one banana, how many apples do you have?).

I accompanied the girls on their first day. I sat in for about an hour to translate the general welcoming remarks by the camp counselors then left when the girls gave me the go-ahead to leave. At first, they simply enjoyed the activities and new friendships. Then, their spongy minds formed small tentacles of understanding. While they could not yet speak French, they were able to respond with a Oui, Non, or Je ne sais pas. (Yes, No, I don’t know.)

At the two-week mark, I began to dog on them. Over supper, I asked them, Qu’est-ce que vous avez appris en français aujourd’hui? (What did you learn in French today?)


I continued to ask the question, night after night. My exasperated daughter finally countered with a roll of the eyes, Totalement rien. (Absolutely nothing).

A ha!

Then, one afternoon, this same daughter announced proudly that she had spoken French at camp that day.

“What did you say?” I asked her.

“A boy in my group asked me if I liked cheese and I answered him, ‘Oui, je t’aime le fromage.’”

I squeezed my lips together to keep from laughing. “Um…honey, you said to him ‘I love you cheese!’”

For the girls, I believe that much of their quick success had something to do with the experience they had in Central America. Making new friends, especially ones that speak a different language was familiar to them. They had the confidence to believe that they would eventually understand and then speak this foreign tongue.

There’s certainly value in learning a second language from a teacher, a CD-ROM, or writing out verb charts. Immersion undoubtedly provides the optimum environment for learning a second language, but any instructional method combined with relevance ignites motivation to speak that language, and there is nothing quite so powerful as a determined student.

The multilingual abilities of children could have a positive impact on their lives in myriad ways. For Canadians in particular, expertise in both official languages is a highly marketable skill. However, how can parents convince their children of the relevance of learning French (or any second language) based on these arguments? The truth is, I don’t think we can. Unless there is genuine interest, the child will likely find it tiresome and senseless. When I was teaching French as a Second Language (FSL) in the Ontario elementary panel, I was faced with bored students and sometimes hostile attitudes of parents towards learning French. At parent-teacher interviews, families insisted they couldn’t think of one good reason why their kids should learn French in the most populous anglophone region in the world (there’s that relevance issue again).

Then I stumbled across a government pen pal program that paired FSL students in anglophone Canada with their francophone counterparts in Quebec. Suddenly everything changed. The students became vested in learning French so that they could communicate with some degree of proficiency with their pen pals, who wrote back in English.

I became caught up in their enthusiasm. I discarded my lesson plans and decided that before Christmas break we would record ourselves on a cassette tape stammering out holiday greetings in French and spent three whole periods scripting Christmas cards to send in the mail with it.

Students began asking questions that pierced the cultural veil dividing the two regions. For example, we were flummoxed by French-Canadian naming customs (now largely obsolete) that followed the Catholic Church’s insistence that all boys be named Joseph and all girls Marie. The child’s second name was linked to the godparent. Therefore, when our list of pen pals arrived, some boys wondered why their partners had female names as in Jean-Marie or vice versa with the girls, as in Marie-Claude. They would not have cared a wit if I had taught this concept as a stand-alone lesson.

The students did not necessarily advance their French grammar from this experience, but they got to know about French-Canadian culture, heard authentic French-Canadian accents detected from the snippets of greetings recorded on the flip side of our cassette, and developed an interest in visiting the province and studying the language. As a result, I went from being the “dentist” of my school, when kids dreaded seeing me, to the fun teacher who led a class full of crafts and singing. My goal was inspiration, not conjugation.

After that first glorious summer spent at the cabin in Quebec, we decided to return three more times, until the girls became teens and couldn’t be away from part-time jobs and friends back home. Each time we returned the girls developed increased confidence to be left at day camp from the outset, without my intrusive translating. Their French lay dormant all winter like the blossoms on the flowers. It emerged slowly, pale at first but rising to full bloom by August. No longer did I have to coax them along when ordering fast food or translate key lines in the French language Harry Potter movies that were released every summer.

I’d like to take credit for all this, but it was the francophone children who, by just speaking to my girls, created the relevance needed to motivate them to learn French. Maybe I’ll convince the girls to tell others that I am one of those bilingual moms who teach their kids French.

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