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L’Importance du Français to thrive in Montreal: Does the Sociolinguistic Context Matter for Teaching and Learning?

April 11, 2022
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By Oguzhan Tekin and Rachael Lindberg

This is a summary of an academic study.

Our experiences as international students in Montreal could not possibly be more different, not only because of our upbringing, but also the educational systems that we went through. Nevertheless, we have both been acutely aware of the importance of French in Montreal since day one, despite hearing that you can ‘get by’ with only English thanks to the many bilingual residents. Our first-hand experiences coupled with stories from others – ones with no French background in particular – made us realize that it is indeed possible to survive in the city by sticking to English when it comes to communicating with others on a daily basis. The emphasis being on survive. However, it was clear to us that one does need a functioning knowledge of French to expand one’s social circle, create a sense of belonging, and secure better and more meaningful employment experiences both during and after one’s studies (i.e., to thrive as opposed to just survive). Therefore, we believe that going beyond this notion of ‘getting by’ towards being an integrated part of the social life in Montreal and enjoying it to the fullest is what drove us to investigate international students’ perceptions vis-à-vis the importance of French in this city. Our findings may be relevant to French-language teachers who need to plan curricula and deliver lessons to international students, as they can gain a better understanding of their students’ experiences and perceptions of the target language beyond the classroom context.

For our study, we drew on an existing corpus created by the Concordia Applied Linguistics Lab (directed by professors Kim McDonough and Pavel Trofimovich), where pairs of international university students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds carried out several communicative tasks. For one of these tasks, they were asked to discuss potential challenges experienced when coming to Montreal, with no direct allusion to French whatsoever. Their conversations were audio-recorded and transcribed, and we have been coding and analyzing their conservations using qualitative content analysis. Our preliminary findings based on 36 participants suggest that international students have the most difficulty with adapting to social life in Montreal as well as finding part-time employment, which they mostly attributed to their lack of French knowledge. In this small sample, 75% of students brought up French when discussing the challenges they experienced in Montreal, although not all of them necessarily made clear associations between French and the exact problems they encountered. Students who chose to elaborate suggested both social and employment-related challenges.  

From a social standpoint, international students overall reported having certain difficulties with navigating the city and culture. 82% of the time, these issues were brought up in conjunction with the omnipresence of French (e.g., being unable to understand signs in the city, announcements on the metro) and the accompanying feeling of surprise due to their initial assumption that they were moving to a bilingual city. Furthermore, several students, especially those who lack French proficiency, also mentioned feeling unwelcomed by some city residents and having been on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviours and feeling cast out. This issue was often attributed to Montreal residents’ expectations for international students to use French during the interaction, as these two students recount: 

"If you go like east or something of downtown, then you experience like some types of like racist-- not racism like what do you call it? Prejudice yeah or bigotry against you. Discrimination just because you don't speak French and like they refuse to speak English to you because they assume you should know French."

"I remember once I was in the grocery shop and there was a man who was not Anglophone. He spoke French so he was annoyed that why we guys have come from our countries here without learning French. So he was not happy by seeing us all."

Another challenge that they brought up during peer conversations was finding proper part-time employment to support themselves financially. Students linked lack of French not only with the quantity but also the quality of jobs available for them. They argued that due to lack of French knowledge, their options were limited to working unilingually at call centres or doing menial work, such as dishwashing, where speaking is not an integral part of the position. Considering the skills they need to hone order to successfully find jobs that align with their chosen majors (e.g., communication skills, intercultural awareness), it is safe to say that this may not be ideal in the long run.   

Clearly, these findings are only based on a small number of individuals and are tentative at best at this point. However, they imply that there may be a mismatch between international students’ expectations and those of Montreal residents. Based on our findings regarding second language English-speaking international students’ experiences in an English-medium university in Montreal, it is plausible to suggest that teaching and learning does not happen in isolation from the larger sociolinguistic context. Therefore, teachers always need to factor the social and cultural context into their activities and, on a larger scale, their curricula. In this regard, considering our present context and perhaps without going too deep into the intricacies of historical events at first, we believe that it is crucial to clearly communicate the importance of French for most Montreal residents to future international students, so that they are more informed in this regard. Given that the students in this small sample reported higher than average scores of acculturation (3.94 out of 6) at the time of data collection, such social and contextual awareness may be what they need to more fully integrate into their host community. On the other hand, local residents should also be reminded that it is indeed a hefty undertaking for international students to learn and confidently use another language (French), especially as they go through mentally-taxing experiences of social, cultural, and academic adaptation upon their arrival to Montreal. Despite risking sounding cliché, we would like to finish by saying that we cannot emphasize the importance of mutual understanding and compassion since this might not only result in better academic and social experiences for international students but also meaningful intercultural contact for local residents.

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