Language duality in Canada: the power of French immersion

A text from Jill LeBlanc, French Immersion Language Arts Leader, Grades 7-12 for the Prince Edward Island Department of Education

When we speak about linguistic duality in Canada, we acknowledge its value as “a cornerstone of our national identity” (OCOL). It represents both a great source of pride and a significant growth opportunity for each of us. Although French is one of our official languages, most Canadians outside Quebec live in areas where French is a minority language. Consequently, it is our responsibility to protect the rights of Francophones and Francophiles. If we take the present state of Canada’s two official languages seriously, we need to protect and expand access to programs in French. Becoming involved in this cause is an investment on which the return is exponential – not only to enrich our everyday lives, but also to ensure that future generations can live in strong Francophone communities, obtain services in the language of their choice, and enjoy rich and authentic cultural experiences.

My reality is unique, but my history as a Francophone is not. It is my duty to invest myself in this cause for the good of future generations, just as the generations before us have done. Let me share my story with you.

It begins in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where I grew up in an Anglophone family. We lived in the capital region, which was also the biggest city on the island, but my parents originally came from rural areas where the choice of classes was more limited, so they hadn’t had the same opportunity to learn French. When I finished grade 6, I had my parents’ support to choose a late immersion program, despite the fact that there was no bus to that school. Luckily for my parents and I, the demand was so strong that a late immersion program opened in my neighbourhood school. With that, I embarked on a French-language learning adventure, and I have never looked back.

Over the course of my studies in immersion, I had the opportunity to have cultural experiences that laid the groundwork for an intense love of Francophone culture. There was such a variety; French and Québécois cooking workshops, French theatre and music performances, travel to French-speaking regions, and simple everyday activities where I’d learn an idiomatic expression or news about significant, real events in Francophone communities around the world. Every day, these experiences nurtured my love for French language and culture. French immersion is an essential tool for Canada’s linguistic duality. The foundation of my knowledge of French exists thanks to immersion, because my entire exposure to French during my first six years of learning was limited exclusively to the program.

There is often a popular belief that late immersion students don’t have enough time to become bilingual. I am living proof that this is not the case, and I’m proud of it. The seeds were effectively sown throughout my French immersion journey, and when I graduated, I was able to communicate in French independently. The desire to learn and develop my language skills was also so well nurtured that I made the choice to continue my language training after high school.

Image: Green Chameleon on Unsplash

I began a bachelor of music program in my first year of university, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to continue on that path, even though music held (and still holds!) an important place in my life. One of my electives was a French course and I enjoyed the experience of practicing my French every day. At that point, I decided to change my major and starting next term, I found myself full-time in the department of languages. My French major required an internship in a Francophone environment, which I had the pleasure of completing in Quebec City, thanks to a Government of Canada bursary to study in French.

My studies in French as a second language opened a lot of doors for me, but over the course of my adventure, I had to face linguistic insecurity. I began to understand why minority language speakers often feel the need to defend their languages.

I was hired for several jobs where I had the opportunity to speak French, and I’m certain that my being bilingual helped make these opportunities possible. That said, when working with the public, it’s not always easy for an Anglophone who attempts to speak French. People often answered me in English when I made the effort to communicate in French with my Anglophone accent and imperfect grammar. In spite of everything, I continued in French, but I admit that sometimes I felt discouraged. Today, fifteen years later, I live completely in French. I am married to a Francophone and we speak almost exclusively French at home with our three children. The language we use at work is French.

I can definitely say that we are a family that lives in French by choice. Unfortunately, linguistic insecurity doesn’t end because we choose to live our daily lives in French.

The shortage of Francophone workers in a minority environment is felt in a number of areas, not only in education, but also when it comes to finding a healthcare professional, financial advisor, lawyer, etc. Unfortunately, people who are bilingual often settle for using these services in English to leave room for others. However, we must remember that there will never be additional funds or services if the demand is not there. So we have to be bold and ask! My personal and professional path is not unlike that of many people working in the field of French immersion in Canada, but I share my story with pride. I am an example of the importance of offering varied programs in French in Canada, aimed at supporting the development of linguistic duality by means of our minority language.

I am bilingual, and proud of it. Bilingual because I live in French and English, because I enjoy taking part in recreational activities in both languages, and because my heritage includes unforgettable experiences and important relationships in both English and French. My adopted Francophonie provides me each day with a wide variety of experiences and the ability to express myself with precision and with all the nuances implicit in both of my languages. The diversity and variety that I encounter in all aspects of my life are doubly rich because of my linguistic duality and my hybrid culture. My Francophonie is not simply woven into the fabric of my life: it is a vital strand of every thread, without which I would not be the person I am today.

Jill LeBlanc is the French Immersion Language Arts Leader, Grades 7-12 for the Prince Edward Island Department of Education. Having learned French in a late immersion program, she developed a bilingual identity which characterizes her in many ways. A mother of three, she conveys her passion for French language and culture to everyone she meets, proud of the linguistic duality that defines her journey. Jill is a former member of the administrative council of the Association canadienne des professionnels de l’immersion (ACPI) and remains active in the ACPI through her participation on the editorial committee of the Journal de l’immersion.
Image: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash