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As a wayward Franco-Ontarian, I am perhaps a perfect example of the successes and failures of French-language education in Canada outside of Quebec.

After two decades of allowing my French-language skills to wither, I decided a few years ago to reconnect with the French language. French is my father’s first language. To this day, my grandmother still lives in a small French-speaking town. I spent most of my childhood in bilingual communities. When I was a young teenager, half of my friends spoke French at home. I went to French-immersion school until Grade 10, when I moved to Alberta.

Moving to Alberta represented a break in my French-language education. But it didn’t have to. There are francophone communities all around Edmonton, and my school offered a French-immersion class. The problem wasn’t that French education wasn’t available, but that there were only one or two students at my level. And, quite honestly, I was not that interested in sitting in a corner with the two bilingual kids while the other students learned the basics. It was boring and a little embarrassing. So I dropped the class.

In addition to having access to only a handful of peers at my level, I had no encouragement outside of home to continue learning French. After all, there weren’t many opportunities for me to use my French skills, and outside of Quebec, French seemed outdated. In short, it seemed like more of a hobby than a useful skill. People were moving west in waves. Why bother with the ancestral language?

Back to my roots

Over the next two decades, I lived and travelled all over North America. Even though I lived in cities like Winnipeg (where there is a strong francophone community), I didn’t make the effort to maintain my language skills. I took it for granted that I could just decide to catch up one day. Besides, French is easy, right?

Needless to say, I was wrong. As an adult, I entered the world of public affairs. In an officially bilingual country, it is a great disadvantage not to be perfectly bilingual. I also fell in love with Quebec. One day, I would like to live in Quebec City or (more likely) Montreal. So I decided to correct the mistakes of my youth.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to dive back into the French language. I had a good base of knowledge. But there is a big difference between being able to read The Little Prince and being able to write about technical subjects in French. I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the few silver linings of the social distancing necessitated by COVID-19 is that a lot of educational resources were made available online. I could take French classes with other people at my level no matter where they lived. Most of the students at the Alliance Française were also very motivated. It wasn’t like sitting in the corner waiting for the other students to catch up.

Another educational resource that helped me a lot was the French programs on ICI TOU.TV, an app from Radio-Canada. I found that watching shows with French subtitles helped me follow the dialogue when the characters were speaking very fast or not so clearly. Reading in French is very important – and especially helpful when it’s authors like Albert Camus who wrote very clearly – but television (or radio) is especially helpful because it shows how people express themselves in the real world. The tone of voice, the rhythm, the abbreviations, the slang. After all, you want to sound like a human when you speak!

Last April, I decided that I would enjoy a more immersive experience. I returned to Quebec City, not as a tourist but as a student. I took intensive French courses at a language school. This gave me the confidence to progress to the point where I can now write in French (with a little help!). Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or money to do something like this. Still, it was extremely helpful for me.

Eventually, I started attending a French pub night in Toronto. Studying a language doesn’t have to be boring! Having a good reason to speak French regularly helps me a lot. Or maybe it’s just fun.

Policies must change…

My goal was first to use my personal experiences to reinforce the points I made in a previous Policy Options article about the economic, social, and geopolitical benefits of learning French. After all, the solutions are political.

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Having the opportunity to enroll children in French immersion is crucial. Despite the challenges posed by access rules about who can – or must, in the case of Quebec – enroll their children in French school, it is possible in much of Ontario. But in many parts of the West, it is more difficult. Increasing access should be a priority.

We also need to ensure there are enough places where people can speak French regularly. This presents opportunities for many francophone communities across the country. People travel to Quebec City from all over Canada and the world to learn and practice French. There is no reason why cities like Moncton or Winnipeg, where there are not only francophone communities but francophone institutions, cannot benefit from this kind of tourism (on a smaller scale). Developing a strategy to capitalize on these French foundations would not require a revolutionary approach. In fact, it may be mostly a marketing issue.

Ottawa could also ensure that resources like ICI TOU.TV are free rather than keeping much of the content for subscribers, as is currently the case. Making all content available for everyone wouldn’t be expensive (and would be the least a public broadcaster like Radio-Canada could do).

Canada should recommit to bilingualism

Is bilingualism doomed?

Is modernizing the Official Languages Act a mission impossible?

In 2021/22, total subscriber revenue for all CBC/Radio-Canada French-language services was just over $60 million (which also includes ICI RDI and ICI ARTV). That may sound like a big number, but it’s similar to the budget of the Toronto Zoo ($59 million in 2023) or the City of Ottawa library system ($60 million in 2023). It’s an amount of money the federal government could forgo without consequence.

Finally, governments could consult with francophone educational institutions such as universities and Alliances Françaises to determine whether there are opportunities to increase their online resources and offer incentives to do so. From the perspective of these organizations, the return to face-to-face learning after the disruption of the pandemic certainly makes sense. But not everyone is lucky enough to live near a French-speaking community or has the luxury of being able to travel.

… And attitudes, too!

Of course, governments can’t be the only answer. We need to value bilingualism in order for the French language to thrive in all of Canada. You’ll note from my account that I had most of the opportunities I needed to enter adulthood fully bilingual and fell short. More educational, social, and entertainment options would have helped but might not have been sufficient. We need an attitude shift. If we view French as an extravagance, governments will treat it as such. If we don’t encourage learning and practicing French, people won’t do it. If we’re going to remain a bilingual country, we need to value bilingualism.

Much of the conversation about the place of the French language in Canada is defeatist. But I believe that with small changes in policy and attitude, we can strengthen French across the country.

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