School News

Allison Hanes: EMSB puts focus on French with 'Le mois du français'

Adèle Guilloteau
Adèle Guilloteau, who teaches at Willingdon Elementary, is one of three new instructors from France recently hired by the EMSB amid a teacher shortage in Quebec that has also prompted French service centres to recruit abroad. PHOTO BY PIERRE OBENDRAUF /Montreal Gazette
Montreal Gazette - Tuesday, January 10, 2023

By Allison Hanes • Montreal Gazette

There’s little chance of students in Adèle Guilloteau’s Grade 1 French immersion class at Willingdon Elementary addressing her in English.

Even if they tried, the teacher doesn’t understand much of her anglophone pupils’ mother tongue anyway.

Guilloteau is one of three new instructors from France recently hired by the English Montreal School Board amid a teacher shortage in Quebec that has also prompted French service centres to recruit abroad.

But the language barrier may be a blessing in disguise for her young English-speaking students.

“In two months, I already see progress. Certain students didn’t speak French at all when I arrived, certain ones did. But today they’re speaking more and more French,” Guilloteau said in an interview before the holiday break. “You really have to take your time, explain everything, sometimes show or illustrate with actions or pictures. It’s also important to get the children to help each other. If there’s one student who doesn’t understand what I’m saying in French, another student can explain in their own words. It creates a nice sense of solidarity.”

Native French speakers teaching in Quebec’s English schools is nothing new. Francophone Quebecers have long been a crucial pillar of the English system. But as anglophone parents contemplate the language of education for children nearing school age — one of the biggest decisions they will make about their futures — one English school board is seeking to highlight the calibre of its French programming.

The EMSB has christened January “Le mois du français” leading up to the kindergarten registration period. The calendar is chock full of special events, including a French podcast, an advertising campaign, a jingle-writing contest for students using the familiar “Être bilingue, c’est gagnant!” slogan, and the launch of a detailed website describing the board’s immersion, bilingual and second-language offerings. Some schools will host French-language guest speakers, including Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who is to visit students at Edward Murphy Elementary in his east-end Montreal riding this month.

Quebec’s English schools face increasingly stiff competition from their French counterparts for the limited pool of eligible students. Since Bill 101 was adopted half a century ago, francophones and new immigrants have been required to go to primary and secondary school in French. Only Quebecers with a parent or sibling who did the majority of their education in English in this province or elsewhere in Canada have a constitutional right to English schooling — and thus a choice. But it’s increasingly a complicated one.

The latest data from the 2021 census shows that just over 300,000 children are entitled to English instruction in Quebec and about 76 per cent attend. While enrolment in minority-language education programs has been rising in the rest of Canada, it has waned in Quebec over the past decade.

The reasons are surely many, varied and personal. But as Quebec reinforces the use of French under Bill 96, there is heightened angst among anglophone parents that their children attain the language skills to thrive here.

EMSB chair Joe Ortona said that French has always been a priority, but the board is going to great lengths to demonstrate that children can and do emerge from English schools fully bilingual — and well-positioned to contribute in a francophone society.

“There is, within some parts of the population in the English community, this perception and — I think it’s a misperception — that children need to go to French school if they want to excel in French. That’s not true,” said Ortona. “I think it’s important to emphasize that knowledge of one language doesn’t mean loss of another. The benefit of education in an English school … (is) you’re getting the best of both worlds.”

Ortona, a lawyer, cites himself among myriad examples.

“I didn’t speak French at all when I started kindergarten,” he said. “I enrolled in a French immersion program, and even though French is my third language now, I speak it fluently. Because of that, I was able to attend a French university and study, work, socialize in French. That was 30, 40 years ago and our French programs have improved greatly since then.”

English schools are also one of the institutional cornerstones of a minority language community living among the much larger French linguistic minority in North America. They inspire great pride and many eligible Quebecers, conscious of hard-won access rights, are committed to ensuring the next generation contributes to their vitality. They just want to know their kids will also be fluent French speakers.

Veronica Bastone is another product of the English system who spoke mainly Italian until she started school. Today she teaches in French at her alma mater East Hill Elementary in Rivières-des-Prairies, including pre-K literacy and Grade 6 immersion courses, like science, ethics and histoire-géo.

“I’m able to see the way students come into the school and the way they leave the school. And kids that were in the same position I was when I just started, they didn’t necessarily know a word in French,” said Bastone. “And now they understand, they’re speaking it. It really is incredible to see both sides.”

English schools offer a strong foundation in French, although she said it is helpful to reinforce language skills outside the classroom, with extracurricular activities or watching movies.

“I have full confidence in all of them to be truly successful in French. I truly do. I’m not just saying that because I work there, honestly. I really believe in the French immersion program in all EMSB schools,” she said. “I’m living proof.”

Read More