The YMCA Summer Work Student Exchange program looks for young Canadians with perseverance, an open mind and an independent streak. And so it comes as no surprise that this student from Toronto, Ontario, was chosen to participate. She wanted to have an exciting summer adventure, and she was not disappointed.
Not many teens would brave spending six weeks away from their family and friends, but Sanjana Verma didn’t hesitate to apply to the YMCA Summer Work Student Exchange program in 2015. “I saw this exchange as an excellent opportunity to improve my French and gain work experience,” she explained. “And, as someone looking for something fun, I saw it as an opportunity to check off my number-one priority at the time—have a summer full of adventure.”
Wanting to get out of her comfort zone, the then 16‑year‑old travelled to Montréal, Quebec, where she worked at a summer camp. Her confidence was a little shaken, however, when she realized what challenges awaited her in the French-speaking city. “I remember getting off the train in Montréal, hearing French all around me, and thinking I wanted to hop on the first train back to Toronto where I could understand everyone around me,” she said.
The language barrier that Sanjana faced was even more daunting because the way people spoke French in Montréal was very different from what she’d learned in school. “I felt trapped in a French bubble and I felt like I couldn’t quite communicate what I needed to say, how I was feeling or what I needed, and I couldn’t understand everything the others said, either (which was especially nerve-wracking when it came to work),” she recalled.
However, Sanjana didn’t let herself be discouraged: “I knew I wanted to persevere through that, and I did. I worked on learning and understanding more. I held more conversations with people and asked for help (translations, mainly) when I needed it. Before I knew it, I was communicating well with everyone around me and having the time of my life.”
And so, her wish for an exciting summer adventure was granted. The YMCA program gave her the opportunity to explore and discover a new part of Canada while improving her second official language and being introduced to the world of work. “Because everything was new, everything just felt so exciting,” she said. “From taking the subway to going to some of the biggest festivals in the area with new friends, every moment felt like an adventure.”
Sanjana is proud of the progress she’s made and is grateful to her host family and the other program participants, “who truly made Montréal feel like home for six weeks.” Their positive energy and open‑mindedness greatly helped the Toronto teen overcome challenges: “It really became like a reciprocal learning experience in which we would teach the other person about our context and environment back home, while learning about theirs. As a result, I was able to develop a different kind of confidence, one in which I felt more open to stepping out of my comfort zone.”
As far back as she can remember, Sanjana has always believed in the importance of being able to speak both of Canada’s official languages. But her immersion in Montréal helped her to see just how much of an advantage being bilingual could be to her. “I found myself developing deeper connections with individuals when I was able to communicate in their language, and as a result, I formed some incredible friendships I know I will cherish for the rest of my life,” she said. “Being English-French bilingual has opened up many doors professionally for me, as well. I find myself being qualified for and having access to so many more career opportunities.”
That’s why Sanjana encourages everyone “to take that challenge upon themselves.”
“I would encourage them to have a ‘don’t knock it ’til you try it’ mentality and just go for it, because they never know what they may gain out of it,” she explained. “And at the very least, they may just develop enough skill to be able to order themselves a croissant at a café.”
What else did Sanjana gain out of her stay in La Belle Province? “I absolutely fell in love with Quebec, the culture, the language, everything,” she said. “Fast-forward a few years, and now I am currently living and working as a teacher in Québec City—all because of one summer that started a spark.”
This 20-year-old Quebecer left home not once but twice to pursue her goal of improving her second official language, and she says her experiences in Prince Edward Island and Ontario were incredibly rewarding.
“French is the language my heart speaks.”
Clarie Ainsley’s love for her mother tongue is clear. Born in the beautiful city of Saguenay, Quebec, she believes that “French must be defended, protected and used,” not only because it connects her to her roots, “but also because it reflects a past that mustn’t be forgotten.”
Not surprisingly, then, Clarie moved to Kingston, Ontario, in 2019 to promote French by working as a language monitor with the Odyssey program. For six months, she worked with students to help them hone their French skills: “I loved working with the students, having them do projects, put on shows and get involved in workshops that sparked their passions and interests.”
But her love for the language of Molière was not the only reason for her trip.
Clarie was determined to hone her own second official language skills. Two years earlier, this had prompted her to participate in the Explore program, through which she completed an intensive language immersion stay in Prince Edward Island. Topping the list of languages most spoken, English “opens people up to the world,” she said, adding that it “promotes communication and relationship-building with [people from] diverse backgrounds.”
Keen to increase her knowledge and eager for a new adventure, Clarie participated in the Odyssey program in the hopes of promoting French while also improving her second language skills by being immersed in an English-speaking environment. “If I wanted anything, I had to ask for it in English,” she said. Her experience proved to be extremely rewarding: “When you give a lot of yourself, you get a lot back, and that’s what happened for me.” Her dedication was rewarded with the kindness of the students and staff at the school. “One of the teachers . . . was a real ray of sunshine,” she recalled. “Every morning, she would come in with a big smile [and] great energy.” Clarie likes to dance, so she also joined the local dance school, where she had the chance to socialize with other dancers in English.
Looking back, Clarie, who now studies film, admits that not only did she develop a deep respect for educators, she also matured tremendously in the six months she spent away from home: “I now know that there aren’t many things I’m afraid of and that I’m capable of being a strong and independent woman. I know that I can adapt easily and that I love challenges,” she said proudly.
As Clarie says, “leaving . . . home at 19 and being eight hours away from your mother makes you grow up fast.”
Her experience also made her realize how much she loves Quebec, the place where she feels most at home. After all her travels, there’s nothing like the familiar pleasures of Saguenay!
She’s only 24, but she already has an impressive list of achievements. This Mississauga, Ontario, native is a public servant who works for the Official Languages Programs (OLP). Every day, she promotes learning English and French among young Canadians. And she got there by participating in the OLP herself.
“I could never go back to living my life only in English,” said Catherine Tanguay. “I can finally feel comfortable speaking French with my family, and it feels good.”
The 24-year-old Ontarian, whose family is part Québécois, participated in the Official Languages Programs not once, but twice. After all her efforts to improve her French second language skills, she’s now enjoying the rewards.
It all started when Catherine was at a job fair and met a promotion agent for the Explore program. The agent told her about an incredible opportunity involving travelling to another part of the country to live in French for five weeks. And the best part was that the program was funded by the Government of Canada, so Catherine could participate fully in the experience without having to worry about money. That clinched it—Catherine was thrilled to have a chance to improve her second language.
In the summer of 2017, she went to Montréal, Quebec, where everything had been beautifully organized and prepared for her arrival: a room in the university dorm, meals in the cafeteria, French classes in the morning, and cultural activities in the afternoons and on weekends. Catherine visited the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, the Botanical Garden, the Olympic Stadium and Saint Joseph’s Oratory. “And because the campus and city were Francophone, everyday life was in French,” she explained. “I would listen to people speaking on the bus, I would read ads, I would order my meals in French. I learned French by living it and having fun at the same time.”
Catherine’s stay in Montréal coincided with Canada’s 150th anniversary and Montréal’s 375th anniversary. “The city was alive,” she recalled. Catherine attended spectacular events, including the Just for Laughs festival, the International des Feux Loto-Québec (an international fireworks competition) and Montréal Avudo, a multimedia show showcasing the St. Lawrence River.
But the greatest thing she gained from her experience was the friendships she made with young Canadians from across the country: “I was very sad that our adventure was over and that everyone had to go back home. Every time I hear the song ‘Je rentre à Montréal’ by Ariane Moffatt, I get a little emotional.” She takes comfort in knowing that in the future, no matter where she travels in Canada, she’ll always have a friend to welcome her.
After the Explore program, though, Catherine found herself missing French. Ready for a new adventure, she decided to apply to the Odyssey program, which gives young Canadians an opportunity to gain paid work experience in a classroom setting while being completely immersed in their second language outside the classroom. For nine months, Catherine worked as an English language assistant and continued to hone her French skills.
Catherine, who admits to having “greatly romanticized [her] return to Quebec,” arrived in Dolbeau-Mistassini, near Lac Saint-Jean: “It was very intimidating, as I wasn’t sure what to expect, but luckily, I was graciously welcomed to my community.” On the very first day, her associate teacher—herself an alumna of the Explore and Odyssey programs—invited Catherine to stay with her. However, despite her host family’s kindness and generosity, Catherine admits that she found the isolation aspect of her experience difficult. In addition to being far from home and not knowing anyone, she was immersed in a lifestyle that was very different from what she was used to. “People there love to hunt, they work in the woods, they have their own accent, and they’re very proud of it all,” she explained. On the positive side, her experience gave her the opportunity to try new activities, like ice fishing and, most importantly, to gain more independence.
Participating in the two programs enabled Catherine to speak French in an authentic Francophone environment, make lasting memories and boost her self-confidence: “I am naturally a more timid person, but I’m not afraid to put myself out there. I think people appreciate that about me, and this has helped me professionally. The exchanges helped me get out my shell.”
Grateful for having been able to reconnect with part of her heritage and identity, Catherine now wants to pay it forward by opening up her home to students in language immersion programs!
Is it possible for a 15-year-old to be totally committed to learning both official languages? According to this Quebec teen, it is. To achieve his dream of one day entering into provincial politics, he’s ready to do whatever it takes—even if it means going to Alberta to improve his English.
Samuel Boutin is not like other teenagers. Only 15 years old, he is bound and determined to achieve his goal of entering into provincial politics.
Born in Beauceville, Quebec, Samuel feels privileged that French is his first official language: “French is such a rich language, and it’s so important for all of us and for our future. It’s part of our history.”
That said, Samuel has no intention of neglecting his second language. He knows that being bilingual is an important skill to have in order to effectively answer journalists’ questions, express himself fluently at press conferences or debates and communicate comfortably with the general public. And so, in April 2019, he took a big step.
Through an Experiences Canada student exchange, Samuel travelled to Westlock, Alberta, both to improve his English and get out of his comfort zone. Mission accomplished! In Alberta, the Quebec teen stayed with a unilingual English-speaking family, which was challenging but also a great way to improve his second language skills.
In for a penny, Samuel fully immersed himself in the province’s culture. He participated in various activities, including a trip to Jasper, where he climbed a mountain and admired the breathtaking scenery. He also had the opportunity to visit a small Alberta community that’s struggling to make do with the resources it has. “It was a shock for me to see that,” he said, “but at the same time, it made me realize how lucky I am in my own community.” The teenager did note, however, that Alberta, a part of Canada he didn’t know very much about, is a lot like Quebec: “We have many things in common that make us great economic partners in Canada.”
Although Samuel had no trouble settling in to his new environment, communicating with his host family was sometimes difficult. “I didn’t expect that speaking English for a week would be so complicated,” he admitted. “I take English classes at my school, but it’s pretty basic in terms of teaching and learning, so it was hard to find the right words to express myself.”
Samuel was reassured, though, when he learned that the other exchange students in his group were having similar difficulties . “We were all in the same boat,” he recalled. But thankfully, everyone was ready to help each other out to make their Western adventure memorable and rewarding. “I’m sure we all made a positive impression on each other in our own way during our exchange,” said Samuel.
Along with great memories and new friendships, Samuel returned home with a stronger command of English than when he left and with a renewed confidence that his bilingualism will be an asset in whatever profession he chooses.
“I think that all the benefits of this exchange will help me in my future profession to really highlight the great relationships among Canadian provinces and the importance of their working together for the good of the country,” he said.
In any case, this is a very promising start to Samuel’s future career.
Little did this teenager know that her exchange in Granby, Quebec, would have such an impact on her life. Now almost as comfortable in French as she is in English, the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, native sees her progress as the result of weeks of hard work, plenty of patience and, most of all, lots of fun.
Who could have imagined that a few weeks of total immersion in Quebec, would convince Annalisa Tacchi to move there? But that’s exactly what happened after the 16-year-old’s stay in La Belle Province.
It all started in Grade 4, when presenters came to Annalisa’s elementary school to talk about “all the cool opportunities” that were available to students if they chose to continue in French immersion. One of the activities that immediately caught Annalisa’s attention was a language exchange outside the province: “I remember grabbing a brochure and running home to tell my mom all about it. Lucky for her, I had a few years to wait before I could participate.”
The high school student admits, however, that the initial decision to speak French was not hers, but rather her mother’s. “She never got the chance to learn French, and she understood that languages are easier to learn as a child,” Annalisa explained. And in hindsight, Annalisa is grateful for this decision, because it means more than just something she can put on her résumé—she now has the skills to communicate with people who speak only French.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2020, when Annalisa finally got to go on her exchange to Quebec to improve her second language. There, she was greeted by her exchange partner, “by far the most caring and kind girl [she’d] ever had the good fortune of meeting.” Equally welcoming, her partner’s family was very generous in helping the Westerner adjust, and their small gestures made her feel at home. “I would be woken in the morning around 7 a.m. and then I would go downstairs and eat breakfast with the family,” she recalled. “After getting ready, I would grab the lunch her mother packed for us, and her father would drive us to school.”
There were a few snags: In addition to being four times the size of her own high school, her exchange school had a very different curriculum, which was a challenge for Annalisa. For example, while she was bored in science class (having already learned the material), she found math class to be very difficult.
Despite the challenges, Annalisa wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again. Why? Because, for her, “there are truly no cons to speaking a second language.” In fact, despite the ups and downs in learning a second language, being bilingual is often an essential asset, whether it’s to get your dream job “or, who knows, maybe just something as simple as being able to order food during a vacation in France or helping your child with their homework.”
And, to be fair, she couldn’t have asked for a better family. “Because we got along so well; every experience we did was amazing,” she said. Shopping at IKEA (Saskatchewan doesn’t have an IKEA), eating poutine at Ben La Bedaine, going to the Carnaval de Québec and enjoying traditional activities at the sugar shack—what more could you ask for?
Annalisa’s host family’s dedication to helping her didn’t stop there. Every night, snacks in hand, they watched their favourite TV shows together. “My job was to hold the remote. Whenever anything went over my head, I would pause the TV, and they would all explain. It was a good system. I found myself rarely pausing the TV after a couple of weeks,” she said proudly.
Annalisa doesn’t think she could have made this kind of progress if she hadn’t done the exchange: “I learned a great deal about improving my accent, but also lots of slang lingo—things you’ve never been taught in a classroom.”
Now back from her trip, the ambitious student is preparing for a new project: moving to Quebec to go to university. “I often saw French as my professional language and English as my personal language,” she said. “But I’m excited to be moving back to Quebec after high school graduation, where the two will be totally flipped.”
So, here is Annalisa’s best advice to young people like her, who are about to embark on the experience of a lifetime:
- “Do not over pack. Bags are heavy and expensive. Do not bring things you are only planning on wearing once. It’s not worth it.”
- “Really try to get to know your partner before they come to your home. Being friends makes all the difference.”
- “Know that sometimes you will have NO idea what is being said to you. Try not to just nod along. Ask for help when you need it.”
And finally, for those who are still on the fence about learning their second official language: “If you are offered the opportunity, take it. . . . Take the plunge . . .”
This 17-year-old Quebec native with a passion for travel, sports and official languages is not the type of person to say no to a new adventure. And participating in a three-month immersion program in Manitoba was no exception!
According to Mathilde Gosselin, “being comfortable speaking both of Canada’s official languages increases your sense of belonging to the country and also helps you to better understand its issues.”
Originally from Plessisville, a small French-speaking town in Quebec, the 17‑year‑old is thankful to be bilingual. Every day, her fluency in English gives her access to more information and options, whether for schoolwork or simply to be able to watch television shows and movies without dubbing or subtitles. In fact, Mathilde plans to study medicine and intends to apply not only to French-language universities, but also to McGill, one of Quebec’s three English-speaking universities, to increase her chances.
And that’s not all! In addition to making it easier for her to communicate while travelling, Mathilde’s fluency in English also enables her to help others in situations where English is needed. For example, “when it comes to talking on the phone or booking vacations in English,” she often helps her parents because they didn’t have the opportunity to learn the other official language.
Mathilde has fond memories of the unique experience that helped her to hone her second language skills in 2019: a three-month immersion stay in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with Échanges Azimut. She was following in the footsteps of her brother and sister, who had previously participated in the program: “When I saw the impact that immersion had had on their lives, I wanted to do it, too.” To be able to explore a new place, improve her English and create unforgettable friendships was too tempting an opportunity for Mathilde to pass up! “Also,” she added, “I think that kids my age want to be independent, and this program gave me the chance to do that.”
Confident and self-reliant, Mathilde adjusted quickly to her new environment. The transition was made even easier by her classmates, who helped her discover the city and its hidden treasures. “A typical day consisted of going to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she explained. “I followed a personalized schedule with classes that I’d chosen.” She participated in intramural sports at lunchtime: “It was a great activity to have fun and get to know other people.” Always one to be involved, Mathilde also joined the school’s volleyball team.
All of these activities greatly helped her improve her spoken English. “Understanding has never been a problem for me,” she said, “but this exchange helped me increase my vocabulary and learn some slang words that kids my age use out West. . . . I noticed a big change in the way I pronounced certain words and in how fast I spoke at the end of my exchange compared to the beginning.”
Mathilde’s stay in Manitoba lived up to her expectations, enabling her to improve her second language, play a sport she’d enjoyed back home and meet great people. “But the person who made the biggest impression on me was Simon, a friend I made during the first week,” she recalled. “We still video chat every week. Simon and I are a lot alike, and he made me feel comfortable right away. He was the one I could confide in, knowing he’d be respectful.”
Mathilde did face some challenges, however, like having to share a room with her exchange student. Living with a complete stranger, she found it difficult to let her guard down completely. Luckily, though, “my host family was nice, and I was able to have memorable moments with them by sharing my culture with them and discovering theirs,” she said. Not surprisingly, the day she left was very emotional: “All the great friendships and connections I’d made with the community and the school had to end that day, so it was honestly the most difficult experience I had to go through during those three months.”
Overall, Mathilde had nothing but good things to say about her time in Western Canada. “The exchange helped me develop my self-reliance, my independence and my flexibility, which will serve me well later on in my studies and in my career,” she explained. “Also, I have type 1 diabetes, so this experience helped me to be more independent in managing my disease and enabled me to raise awareness of my condition among those around me.”
Mathilde’s advice for anyone who’s not sure about participating in an exchange program is simple: “Go for it and don’t be afraid! . . . Even if you think your English isn’t very good, it’s okay; you’ll get better!”
From Nunavut to New Brunswick, she has crossed land and sea to improve her French skills in an immersion environment. This 16 year-old counts herself extremely lucky to be bilingual and spent three weeks practising her French with people who are just as passionate about official languages as she is.
In 2019, Lena Chown decided to leave her hometown of Iqaluit, Nunavut, to spend three weeks in Moncton, New Brunswick. Her goal was to immerse herself in an environment with people who, like her, wanted to improve their second official language: French. “I believe it’s important to understand both [English and French],” she said, “to give me a better capability of understanding other individuals around Canada when travelling and going about my day‑to‑day life.”.
Coming from a small northern community, Lena saw the Explore program as an exciting new adventure. During her stay in Atlantic Canada, she met Rachel, a girl her age from Saskatchewan. It was a pleasant surprise that both shared a strong interest in science. For Lena, meeting someone who had so much in common with her was not only unusual, but it also made her experience in New Brunswick a positive one. “The exchange gave me a chance to meet students whom I could relate with and helped me make close friends like Rachel, who made the experience much more enjoyable,” said Lena. A year later, she’s still in touch with some of them.
The Explore program encourages dialogue between people from different provinces and territories in Canada. Every day, Lena participated in conversations in French that helped her enrich her vocabulary and improve her self-confidence. The program’s schedule was also very conducive to learning: “We had classes in the mornings that were tailored to people who spoke different levels of French. In the afternoons we did structured activities (yoga, cheerleading, painting, sculpting) or field trips (zip lining, beach, magic mountain, zoo, pool).” Weekends were reserved for exploring the city of Moncton and the surrounding area. These community outings were Lena’s favourite aspect of the experience. “They really gave us a chance to be immersed in the French culture of the community around us and to actually experience using conversational French in a public setting,” she explained
Despite her busy schedule, Lena admitted that the first few days of the program were an adjustment period, especially since she’d never spent so much time away from her family. “At first it was difficult, having to speak all French, all the time, but after a few days, it became like second nature to me and became very enjoyable,” she recounted. The 16‑year‑old said that the experience improved her interpersonal skills, which will serve her well in the future.
Now more than ever, Lena understands the benefits of being bilingual, both personally and professionally: “Being able to speak both English and French was an advantage for me when travelling to Quebec, as it made communicating with servers, retail people, the public and so on much easier. I anticipate that being able to speak both languages will also be an advantage for applying for jobs in the future.” This is why the Grade 11 teen continues to take French classes and hopes to be able to keep practising her second language when she goes to university in a few years.
A model of intellectual curiosity, Lena encourages everyone to jump with both feet into an immersive experience like the one she had. The secret, in her opinion, is to be open-minded and to want to speak in your second language as often as possible: “At first it may be difficult, but it will 100% pay off in the end.”
For Lena,it goes without saying that “learning a new language is always a good thing”!
This animated young Montréaler’s focus on creativity and learning during her immersion experience in Toronto, Ontario, highlights her great ability to adapt, her interpersonal skills and her insatiable curiosity.
In 2018, Malango Mcumbe applied to the Explore exchange program to improve her English. She was already fluent in French and in Swahili, her first language, so the opportunity to become trilingual was one she couldn’t pass up. “Honestly, learning a new language is a great asset,” she said.
At the age of 24, she spent five weeks in Toronto and right from the beginning was charmed by its inhabitants, who were very polite and welcoming. In fact, when she arrived in the city, someone offered to help carry her luggage and many passersby said hello to her. Both surprised by and appreciative of Toronto’s friendliness, the Montréaler settled easily into her new environment: “This exchange helped me get out of my comfort zone and face the unknown. . . . I really liked the fact that I didn’t know anyone, since it helped me to learn how to break the ice, which helped me a lot in my personal growth.” At the same time, she discovered that she was very adaptable and enjoyed meeting new people.
Malango also found that one of the best things about language immersion is the opportunity to discover a new place. In venturing outside Quebec for the first time, she took advantage of her campus’s proximity to downtown to explore Ontario’s capital city, known for its CN Tower and numerous sports teams. “I really enjoyed the activities and outings, especially the guided tour of Toronto,” she said. “Explore organized a game through which we could discover this beautiful city.”
Malango praised the exceptional work of Explore’s monitors, also known as cultural assistants. Throughout the exchange, the monitors guide students in their second-language learning and organize fun activities like karaoke night and a show at the end of the exchange. They also create a safe environment that encourages respectful discussions. During class time, Malango spoke with other young people who had the same level of English she did. “So, it was less embarrassing to make mistakes,” she explained.
Proud of her progress, Malango came out of her experience more confident and with a larger vocabulary and a deeper knowledge of English expressions. In more tangible terms, her exchange gave her tools to help her in her management courses, especially when her professors assigned mandatory texts to read in English.
Not surprisingly, Malango believes that it’s very important to speak and understand both of Canada’s official languages. This social media influencer who likes to mix her cultural heritage with her passion for fashion and makeup says her bilingualism makes it easier for her to communicate with people who follow her on social media and with English-speaking associates all over the world.
According to Malango, the key to a successful exchange is always to use the language you want to improve and not let others influence you, “even if they decide to speak French.”
Bottom line: Be yourself and be curious!
This 16 year old is impressively fluent in French, even though she’s from Saskatoon, in predominantly English-speaking Saskatchewan. How did she manage to improve her second language? Through a language exchange in the National Capital Region.
Addison Shyluk comes from an exogamous family—her mother is Fransaskois—but she speaks English at home most of the time. This is one of the reasons Addison attends the only French school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, though, apart from school, the 16‑year‑old finds that she doesn’t have as many opportunities as she’d like to practise speaking her second language on a daily basis. “That’s why I jumped on this opportunity when I had the chance,” she said.
In May 2019, Addison applied for an Experiences Canada youth exchange that pairs groups from different provinces and territories. Along with a group of participants her own age, she spent a week in Ottawa, Ontario, to deepen her knowledge of French. During her stay, Addison explored the city, participated in activities with the other members of the group and spent time with her host family. She stayed with Sophie, a teenager with whom she had been matched based on their interests.
“Everyone I met was incredible and made a positive impression on me. But there was one person in particular, Sophie, who changed my life,” recalled Addison. “When we met for the first time, I was so scared that she’d find me boring because I was shy.” But Sophie’s openness, patience and compassion quickly put her fears to rest. To this day, Addison is grateful for the warm welcome she got from her exchange sister, who has helped her feel much more confident when meeting new people.
In addition to making new friends, Addison has grown from the experience. She had often been uncomfortable speaking in French for fear of being judged because of her accent but, as she explained, “the people I met during my trip made me realize that French is diverse, and the linguistic differences are what makes it unique.” Addison is proud to say that both languages play an important role in her daily life and are an integral part of her identity: “I speak both languages every day, and I’m grateful for every opportunity I get to use them.”
Addison admitted, however, that she has not always had this outlook. When she started school, she couldn’t understand why the students had to speak French when most of her province did not. “My exchange made me realize that I don’t have to choose between my two languages,” she said, “and that a bilingual future is not only possible, but also accessible.”
Addison’s time in Ottawa was an eye-opener: “I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of my language and heritage. I was able to understand the richness of the Fransaskois culture, and it encouraged me to continue my bilingual journey. After my trip, I ended up joining the Youth Advisory Council of Experiences Canada, the same organization that organized my exchange, and then I became a French for the Future ambassador to promote bilingualism.”
Addison encourages all young people who are thinking of participating in an exchange program to jump at the chance and to be confident in their ability to use their second language. She knows that experiences like these usually lead to memorable encounters: “Being bilingual has given me many incredible opportunities, including the chance to meet young people from all different parts of the country, to listen to their stories and to share mine.”
His journey has been an impressive one, so far. Having emigrated from Colombia to Quebec at 17, this 26‑year‑old student is now fluent in both of Canada’s official languages, never misses an opportunity to travel and broaden his knowledge, and is one of the very few people who can speak seven languages.
What role do Canada’s two official languages play in Níkolas Gómez’s multilingual life?
When he arrived in Montréal, Quebec, at the age of 17, the young Colombian had only a basic knowledge of French. However, during a brief stint in a French class for newcomers, he won a slam poetry competition with “La vie d’un colombécois.” The awards continued the next year when Níkolas was awarded the Governor General’s Academic Bronze Medal in recognition of his outstanding academic achievement in high school.
Today the 26‑year‑old uses French on a daily basis, whether in his university studies, with his friends or for his job with the Université de Montréal. “Even when I’m in mainly English-speaking areas of Canada, I’ll slip French words into the conversation [and] ask if [people] speak French,” he added.
Níkolas also makes good use of his English when he’s travelling the world on his many adventures. The other five languages he speaks are Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, German and Spanish, his first language, and he is a long-time advocate for linguistic diversity.
While working as a Spanish tutor at his CEGEP’s language centre in Montréal, Níkolas met an English assistant who was visiting Quebec as part of the Odyssey program, through which participants gain work experience as language assistants in other Canadian provinces or territories. Their conversations quickly piqued his interest in applying for an Odyssey immersive adventure of his own.
“I applied for the Odyssey program because I wanted to explore another part of our country, because I wanted to practise my English more, because it’s a Canadian government program and I thought it would look good on my resumé, [and] because the concept of the program appealed to me,” he explained. “But the main reason was that my heart was telling me to go for it!”
A few years later, Níkolas travelled to southwestern Ontario to help teach French to students at E.J. Lajeunesse Catholic High School in Windsor.
Here are some of the highlights of his experience:
- Numerous classroom activities, including a talent show, a poetry contest and a “fiesta latina”
- An Earth Week trash pick-up around the school
- Participation in two national contests—Groupe Média TFO’s IDÉLLO contest and the Rendez-vous de la Francophonie’s flash mob contest—through which the school won more than $13,000 in prizes
- More than 500 bright and committed students
- Staff members who were willing to lend their support for his antics
The flexibility Níkolas was given by the school allowed him to let his creativity run wild. He organized exciting projects for the students and created a fun atmosphere in the classroom. “Of course, I still had to be mature and responsible,” he said.
The young man admitted, however, that it took him a few weeks to familiarize himself with his duties, get to know his colleagues and settle in to his new city. “As with any new adventure, you have to expect some ups and downs,” he said. “Housing was a bit of a concern at first, but over time things worked out. . . . The challenges I faced helped me develop greater mental resilience.”
Níkolas is not one to shy away from hard work. To acclimatize to his new surroundings, he got himself another job working part-time in a local shoe store. Since English was the main language of work, the job was also an ideal opportunity to hone his skills in that language.
According to Níkolas, his Odyssey experience wouldn’t have been the same without the friendships he formed with some of the teachers, including Danielle, Mel and Linda. The warm welcome from both staff and students, as well as their kind generosity, helped him settle in and feel at home—so much so that by the end of the 10‑month program, “the school was a second family to me,” he said.
His time in Windsor was a valuable addition to his wealth of experiences, as it gave him the chance to push his boundaries and to better understand what goes on behind the scenes. In 10 months, Níkolas discovered how a school operates, learned how to manage conflict, realized the importance of empathy and broadened his communications skills.
“The Odyssey program also helped me improve my knowledge of Canadian sociolinguistics, which was useful later on in my university studies,” said the Master’s student, who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in intercultural communication at Saarland University in Germany.
The frequent flyer’s next destination is anyone’s guess. But what is certain is that his journey will inspire other young people to broaden their horizons: “Bilingualism brings all of us Canadians together. . . . There are federal resources, projects, services and initiatives out there [to help us learn both languages]. Let’s take advantage of them!”
This Ottawa, Ontario, native participated in not one, but two exchanges to perfect her second language. The 23-year-old took away fond memories and greatly improved her French skills.
Some young people may be reluctant to join a language immersion program because it means venturing into unfamiliar territory, adjusting to new and different cultural and social experiences and, above all, being immersed in a language they’re not completely comfortable in. But Joelle Lepine says this was the best way to improve her French oral skills: “It is my belief that the best way to learn a language is to be completely immersed in it, hence the decision to participate in the exchanges.”
What sparked her desire to become fluent in her second official language? The 23-year-old is aware that “there are things you can express in English that can’t be expressed in French, and vice versa. Knowing both official languages can expand your perspective and help you understand why people fight for the preservation of their language.” That’s why in 2017, Joelle took part in the Explore program and spent five weeks in Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia, with a number of other learners who shared the same goal of improving their French. “Learning alongside other like-minded people can be very motivating when learning a new language,” she added.
Wanting to immerse herself even more fully in French, Joelle flew to Nice, France, for a 10-day language stay with a host family the following year. She found this to be a completely different but equally enjoyable experience. “I could explore the city on my own, and I received private French lessons with my hostess,” she said. “My time in France was much shorter than my time at Explore, but because I was receiving individual attention, my lessons were designed specifically for me to help me achieve my personal goals.”
Joelle became aware of the considerable progress she’d made when one afternoon, after getting lost looking for a museum, she summoned up the courage to ask a passer-by for directions. “The even better part is that she understood me, and I understood where she told me to go! I was also able to have a thorough discussion with a saleswoman (completely in French, of course), who helped me buy a pair of shoes. These are everyday interactions, but the fact that I was able to have them in French is what made me feel so proud about my progress,” she recalled.
There were some challenges Joelle had to overcome to get to that point, however, such as dealing with all things English being off limits: “When you can’t even watch TV in your first language, your brain never gets a rest. I still believe this is the way to do an exchange, but I was definitely mentally drained by the end of it.” This strict rule ended up being very effective, and Joelle even decided to follow it informally during her stay in France.
As a result, her French skills have never been better. “Because I had absolutely no exposure to English during either of the programs, I began to think and even dream in French. In the past, I used to have to translate from English to French before I spoke, but by thinking in French, my sentences no longer needed to be formulated in English first,” she explained.
And her confidence in her second language is also better than ever. Joelle knows that if she ever has to go somewhere where she can only speak French, she’ll manage just fine. This confidence is a tremendous asset in her federal government job, which requires fluency in both official languages. Joelle is able to understand and communicate easily with her many French-speaking colleagues.
To say the least, Joelle has no regrets about her immersive experiences in Canada and abroad, as knowing more than one language has only enriched and benefited her, both personally and professionally.
“If you’re on the fence about participating in a language exchange and need that final push, consider this a sign!” she advised. “If the time commitment is a concern, my exchanges are testament to the fact that it doesn’t have to be long. Shorter exchanges can still give you all the benefits if you’re fully immersed and committed to giving it your all during your time there. The longer you wait, the more likely you’ll miss out on the opportunity.”
She’s a principal human resources consultant at Western Economic Diversification Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, and a 20 year veteran of the federal public service. She’s also dedicated to promoting linguistic duality, which is an important part of her identity.
Carolyn Veitch joined the federal public service in 2000 when she started working at the Public Service Commission of Canada in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Already fluently bilingual, she had no problems meeting the language requirements of the position.
Like many people in Western Canada, Veitch began learning French as a second language in high school. It was one of her favourite subjects: “I had teachers who’d come from all over the world, and they had some amazing stories to tell about their adventures within la Francophonie.” Her high school experience was all the more memorable for her having been chosen to participate in an Alberta-Quebec student exchange program: “I lived in Saint-Césaire, Quebec, for three months as a teenager, which was an incredible immersion experience.” She went on to study at CÉGEP de Jonquière for a summer as a young adult. “Learning my second official language truly opened the door for me to explore parts of the country that I might not have otherwise had the opportunity to do and to meet so many incredible people.”
But her journey of discovery into the French language didn’t end there. “I continued my immersion experience in France, where I lived with a family as an au pair in Normandy for a year. In addition to learning the language with a new accent and from a new Normand perspective, I read lots of Caroline au Canada, ate more than my fair share of foie gras and fell in love with ‘Jazz sous les pommiers,’” she reminisced. Veitch returned to Canada to complete her studies in French language and literature at Campus Saint-Jean, the French-language faculty of the University of Alberta. She was truly charmed by the French language during her stays in Quebec and abroad. “My passion for the French language and for linguistic duality will always be an important part of my identity,” she said.
Today, this passion is reflected in her work at Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD). Veitch’s role within the organization goes well beyond her expertise in human resources. The Edmonton-based public servant is involved in a variety of interesting projects: “For example, I am WD’s Person Responsible for Official Languages, and I work closely with our Assistant Deputy Minister Champion for Official Languages and with our National Coordinator for Official Languages,” she explained. “At WD, there is a dynamic official languages team that collaborates closely to serve western official language minority communities, and team members actively share their passion for linguistic duality with their public service colleagues. In 2019, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, WD’s official languages team received the Collective Leadership Award of Excellence in Official Languages. I couldn’t be more proud.”
There is still a long way to go, however, and this is true for many federal institutions. Veitch still sometimes encounters people who are skeptical about recognizing the equal status of English and French. “My most challenging career moments, from an official languages perspective, stem from having to convince a colleague, usually in a leadership role, of the value of linguistic duality or of the critical importance of providing services to Canadians in the official language of their choice,” she explained. “Diversity and inclusiveness are fundamental values of mine, and I can get frustrated when I’m asked to build a business case to demonstrate their importance in the workplace, even in 2020!”
Fortunately, the importance of linguistic duality is a given in Veitch’s family life. Her children have been enrolled in French immersion programs since kindergarten, and her bilingualism enables her to support them at school: “I can help them do their homework or watch a video clip with them in either official language. I can engage with their school community and share in cultural experiences like Les Rendez-vous de la Francophonie. I’m equally excited to read a recipe or a poem with them in either official language. And I’m a super proud mom when they take and pass the Diplôme d’études en langue française exams!”
According to Veitch, there is absolutely no downside to learning a second language at any time of life. “Is it hard work? Without a doubt, but it is absolutely worth it,” she said. “Learning a second language opens the door to so many rich opportunities: to start a conversation, to share a meal, to explore someone else’s land, culture and perspectives, and much more. Linguistic duality enriches our lives in so many ways.”
He started in the federal public service as a student in 1989 and landed his first full-time position there in 1991. Now he’s Director of Business Expertise at Service Canada’s Integrity and National Services branch in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Jody Doyle didn’t know a lot of French when he started working for the federal government: “I had just a basic understanding of French from high school (and from ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ – Go Habs Go!)” In 2010, he was given the opportunity to take part in a full-time language learning pilot project. “I was one of the first six lucky participants,” he said. “We followed a mix of in-class, individual and self-directed learning, supplemented by field trips and a short immersion period in Quebec.”
His determination helped him obtain his second-language levels and, most importantly, opened up a world of opportunities. For example, he got to work on an awareness campaign with the Fédération des francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador (FFTNL). “The Executive Director of the FFTNL and I visited Francophone communities in various parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, where I conducted information sessions on Service Canada programs and services, such as Employment Insurance, Canada Pension, and grants and contributions,” said Doyle. “Thanks to my language learning, I was able to conduct the sessions, answer questions and provide information to community members directly—all in French. These efforts also served to further develop ties between my department and these Francophone communities.”
Although his position requires him to be bilingual, Doyle sees this requirement as an opportunity to expand his personal and professional network. “Also, given that I live and work in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the French-speaking population is relatively small, I’ve been able to positively demonstrate that you can learn and maintain French in any environment, provided the right supports are in place,” he added.
He owes his outlook in part to the challenges he’s had to overcome during his career, such as when he worked at Service Canada’s headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec. “At the time, I didn’t speak French, and even though I was in an English position, I always felt at a bit of a disadvantage when dealing with my co-workers,” he said. “I did do some part-time language learning through work and attended some night classes on my own, but I regret not having the opportunity to learn more French while living and working in Quebec,” explained Doyle. “Thankfully, I was able to become bilingual after my return to Newfoundland and Labrador and now interact regularly with French colleagues in all parts of the country.”
In addition to playing an important role his professional life, official languages are also part of Doyle’s heritage: his maternal grandfather was originally from the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Although he hasn’t had a chance to explore that part of his history yet, he now has a new sense of belonging. “Now that I can speak and write in both languages, I feel that a whole other world is open to me, and I’m excited to discover more about my roots in Saint-Pierre and in France.”
One of the things Doyle found most helpful as he was learning French was to find the French version of something he was passionate about. “I avidly watch hockey and am interested in political news,” he explained, “so I sought out those things in French and read and watched them regularly.” Learning a second language may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s not as arduous when you have good tools and the right environment. “I won’t lie—language learning is challenging, and there are peaks and valleys in the language journey,” he admitted. “However, the rewards of learning a second language and of learning other cultural aspects of Canada are immense. Learning a second language also allowed me to tap into different ways of thinking and problem solving, which I still use on a regular basis.”
So, what would Doyle say to someone who’s not sure about learning a second language? “Quite simply, I’d say, ‘Do it!’”
In his 18 years in the federal public service, he’s often been seen as the resident Francophone on his team . . . except that he’s an Anglophone. He’s now a senior advisor to an assistant deputy minister in the National Capital Region.
Kevin Crombie puts it bluntly: “
I don’t have a particular knack for languages.” Yet this Shared Services Canada employee and native English speaker now speaks French with remarkable ease. How did he do it? “
It’s not complicated,” he explained. “
When you want to learn a language, you just have to put in the effort.”
Originally from Lindsay, Ontario, and now employed as senior advisor to an assistant deputy minister, Crombie started learning French in high school and continued taking courses a few years later at university. At the start of his career, working as a journalist for The Canadian Press, the basic knowledge he’d acquired a few years earlier came in very handy: “
Often I was the only journalist who could understand both of Canada’s official languages, which gave me a big advantage because I had a better grasp of the issues that were affecting the country’s two language communities.”
But the real turning point came when Crombie moved to Montréal in his mid-30s and realized that his French was limited. “
My meagre French might get me served in a restaurant,” he recounted, “
but it wasn’t good enough to get a job. So I put an ad in the paper offering to exchange English conversation for French conversation and got dozens of responses (and made several good friends).” He also insisted on being served in French wherever he went and took night classes in French at McGill University for a year and a half—at his own expense. Needless to say, he saw results fairly quickly. When he landed his first federal public service job at Transport Canada, he scored an “
E” on all of his second language evaluation tests, which meant that he’d become proficient enough to be exempted from any further testing.
Ever since then, Crombie’s bilingualism has been a distinct advantage in his professional life. At Transport Canada, he worked on a public education and outreach project, and because of his fluency in both official languages, he was the one who landed the plum assignment of being sent to trade shows across the country. French also takes centre stage in his personal life: from doctor’s appointments to watching television—everything happens in French. In fact, he’s been living with his Francophone partner for over 20 years. “
As an adult, I discovered a rich and fascinating culture that I could only access by speaking the other language,” he said.
The advantages of bilingualism are myriad, according to Crombie, who encourages anyone who wants to get started to just jump right in. “
There is no downside to knowing a second language. One thing that helped was realizing that while I might feel foolish and embarrassed when I struggled to say something, the people listening to me did not find me foolish or embarrassing. That was all in my head. No one thinks badly of you because you’re trying to learn.”
While there’s no magic formula for effortless learning, Crombie will tell you that the key to success is practice. Throughout his 18 years in the public service, he’s always made a point of speaking French to his Francophone colleagues and reading documents in French to stay current in his vocabulary. His advice to anyone who wants to improve is this: “
Practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity. Casual conversation is best.”
Clearly, Crombie’s firm resolve is debunking the myths of having to have a special gift for languages or having to get an early start to become bilingual. His experience shows us that anyone can learn another language—and open up a world of possibilities—if they’re willing to put in the effort.
He joined the federal public service a little more than eight years ago and is now Chief of Federal Land Use and Transaction Approvals at the National Capital Commission. He has every reason to be proud: he learned English, his second language, all by himself after taking a basic course in high school.
Martin Barakengera is well versed in the benefits of bilingualism, both socially and intellectually. In addition to giving him access to a wider range of media and literature, being fluent in English and French means that he can interact comfortably with family members, friends and acquaintances who speak only one of Canada’s official languages. And that’s not all. “
With English and French, I have more job opportunities than people who only speak one language, and I have a lot of choices when it’s time to decide on my next travel destination,” he said.
And there’s no need to extol the virtues of bilingualism in the workplace to this manager. Barakengera, who works in the National Capital Region, uses his comprehension and oral skills in both official languages on a daily basis. It’s important for him as a leader to be able to explain complex problems, make persuasive arguments, resolve conflicts, give advice and supervise his team, regardless of the language preference of the person he’s speaking to.
Being bilingual is also a big help when Barakengera needs to act quickly to resolve problems involving employees: “
It’s been my experience that in tense or conflict situations, people tend to ease off and let their guard down a little when I start talking to them in their preferred official language,” he explained. “
Reminds me of something former South African president Nelson Mandela once said: ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’”
Barakengera’s genuine regard for those around him comes as no surprise when you learn that “
building relationships and friendships inside and outside my organization” is one of the things he likes best about his job, along with coordinating his employees’ work to meet his organization’s corporate objectives and empowering his employees to give them every opportunity to meet their professional development goals.
In his eight years of working for the federal government, Barakengera has faced a number of professional challenges. Fortunately, he has many skills, including his fluency in both official languages. “
One time, I was responsible for reviewing a major infrastructure project for federal land use, design and land transaction approval purposes. The project involved many issues for the National Capital Region, and there was no precedent to guide me. There were also many stakeholders to meet, coordinate or discuss with, and the work was rather tedious,” he recounted. “
However, I was able to use my technical and personal skills—including my bilingualism—to resolve the vast majority of the issues and bring the project review to a successful conclusion with very good results.”
According to Barakengera, the social and professional benefits of speaking both of Canada’s official languages are well worth the effort, and he encourages others to learn their second official language: “
I learned my second official language mostly on my own, and it wasn’t an insurmountable challenge. Anyone who’s determined can do it.”
This border services officer at the Detroit–Windsor Tunnel, an international crossing that links Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan, has proudly embraced her bilingualism since childhood.
Even before she was old enough to start working, LeeAnn Haché saw the benefits of being bilingual. “
When I was little, I saw how being able to speak both English and French was an advantage for my dad in his job in the mining industry,” she explained. “
I wanted to have that same advantage.”
This attitude helped her from the get-go. When she was looking for a summer job as a teenager, being bilingual not only made her stand out, but also helped her do her work more effectively. “
I liked being able to serve customers in the language of their choice and not having to find someone else to serve them,” she recounted.
How did Haché learn her second language? The 19-year veteran of the Canada Border Services Agency says she owes a great deal to her Québécois father and her British-born mother: “
I lived in Abitibi, a predominantly French-speaking region of Quebec, so my parents sent me to an English school so that I could communicate well in both of Canada’s official languages.”
It’s no secret that being bilingual has its share of advantages, and Haché has some first-hand experience. When she was 17 years old working at a car rental agency, her employer announced that one employee would have a chance to go to northern Quebec and work in Baie-James for two weeks. The catch? The lucky employee had to be bilingual in order to be able serve the town’s clientele. “
So I was given the opportunity to work there, and it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been able to speak both languages,” she said. Obviously, her ability to communicate effectively in English and French also helped her land her current position as a border services officer. Greeting tourists visiting Canada, especially the ones who’ve never been here before, is one of her favourite parts of the job, not to mention her duty to ensure the safety and well-being of Canadians.
Although she’s never questioned the importance of being bilingual, today Haché could not be prouder of her fluency in both official languages. Her bilingualism ensures that she can provide service to members of the public in the official language of their choice and make them feel welcome when they arrive at the Canadian border. It also helps her to deal with refugees and make them feel comfortable throughout the process of their immigration case in which she is involved.
Official languages are a big part of Haché’s personal life, too. “
I’m proud to be a Quebecer and a Canadian,” she said, “
and I think it’s not just important but also necessary to be able to communicate in English and in French.” And so she has passed these values on to her 14-year-old son in the hope that he too will one day be able to benefit from bilingualism’s many advantages.
Second language teachers
She’s been a teacher for nearly 30 years and has spent more than half of those years teaching English as a second language, both in Canada and abroad. Empathetic and a great listener, she’s currently on staff at John Cabot Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.
Why did Rhonda Fox become a teacher? Because she was passionate about languages. This passion led to a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics and a Bachelor of Education degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and then to the start of a career as a high school English literature teacher.
Something was missing, however. “
Though I loved exploring literature with my students, I was always drawn to the mechanics of language and talking with students about both the nuances of English and the power of words,” said Fox. “
This passion was the catalyst for earning an ESL Specialist qualification from York University, a decision that changed the direction of my career and my life.”
Fox chose to dedicate herself to a profession that she deeply appreciates and that helps her grow every day: “
Being an English language teacher means that I welcome the world to my classroom daily, which is quite an honour.” In addition to learning from her students, she also gets to witness the unique exchanges of knowledge between them, “
as most of them have never lived in a place as culturally diverse as Mississauga. They are proud ambassadors of their birth countries.”
According to the educator, being a second language teacher means always being humbled and always being reminded of how lucky we are to live in a country like Canada. “
The paths that led many of my students to leave their homes and move to Ontario have been fraught with unimaginable challenges. Because of this, magic happens in an ESL classroom when students become each other’s support systems, as they are bonded by the tragedies and triumphs that eventually brought them to Canada. The ESL class is a safe space where they can take those daunting first steps into the English language and Canadian culture in the company of empathetic classmates.”
Interacting with these young people often results in memorable encounters.
I teach many students who once lived in conflict zones. Though I never ask them about their past experiences, I make them aware of the supports our school and community offer for them and their families, and let them know that I’m here for them when they need me,” said Fox. “
Last year, though, inspired by something we read in class, a student put pen to paper and for the first time shared her traumatic wartime experiences—not as an assignment but on her own initiative as part of her personal journey and healing process. More than 10 pages later, she brought me her composition, telling me that she may now be ready to begin telling her story. Her request was for me to help her edit it so that if she was ever ready to share it with others, her experiences would be clearly understood. By having the great honour of being trusted with this young girl’s story, I was granted a glimpse into the lives of many of the students who sit in front of me every day, something that has informed my teaching practice ever since.”
In an effort to meet the needs of her students, the Mississauga teacher has made it her mission to learn as much as possible about their realities by travelling the world. “
Teaching English in Mexico and China, for example, helped me better understand the challenges of navigating a country and culture when you don’t speak the language.” And her dedication doesn’t stop there. In order to gain a global perspective on education, Fox also took part in Project Overseas, an international program run by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation in conjunction with provincial teachers’ unions. This project was an invaluable professional development opportunity for her: “
In the past decade, I’ve been sent to Mongolia, Grenada, Dominica and Uganda to work in partnership with their national teachers’ unions to offer professional development to educators. . . . When you’re an ESL instructor, travel is an investment that makes you a better teacher and global citizen.”
Fox could not be prouder of how far her students have come, especially considering the challenges that some of them, who “
haven’t had the opportunity to develop the literacy and numeracy skills needed to aid in academic success,” have had to overcome. Of course, support and empathy from their teachers and the wider school community are also key factors in their success.
Her philosophy is simple: “
I always remind my students of how lucky they are that they all speak at least two languages because, for young Canadians, bilingualism means opportunity. More options will be available to them, both in Canada and internationally, because they took the time to learn another language. I also remind them that it pays to be bilingual—literally!”
Leah Marie Fornwald
A former student at Weyburn Comprehensive School in Saskatchewan, she’s come full circle and is now back in class at the same high school—but now in the essential role of French second language teacher.
Like many other teenagers, Leah Marie Fornwald wasn’t too enthusiastic about taking French classes in high school, so she simply chose not to, thinking that they’d never help her anyway. Ironically enough, she would become a French second language teacher a few years later. Fornwald fell in love with the profession because of her insatiable thirst for learning. “
Teaching is a lifelong learning experience,” she explained, “
and language teaching is a challenge that’s close to my heart. The world is a fascinating place, and languages help us to discover this world together.”
She got off to a bit of a rocky start, however, leaving teaching behind after two years to work as a border services officer. Fornwald returned to the classroom in 1998, “
with a greater appreciation for the teachers as teammates, for the students and for the happy chaos of school life.”
The Saskatchewan educator hasn’t looked back since. She enjoys every moment, no matter how ordinary, like waiting for her students at the classroom door when the bell rings. “
I see them and I think about how lucky I am to be able to learn along with these interesting and inquisitive people.”
Fornwald strives to give her students every means to succeed, including music, movies and stories. She glows with pride every time she sees a “
light bulb moment,” as she calls it, when one of her students makes a new discovery or changes the way they look at the world. Beyond the subject matter, she also teaches them strategies, including reading strategies that will help them to succeed throughout their studies, whether in history, English, French or math. Sometimes, however, despite the best intentions, the realities of her profession catch up with her. “
What’s challenging is that there are so many needs, and the days go by so quickly,” she said. “
We want to do everything for everyone, but it’s just not possible.”
Fornwald is determined to overcome these challenges and change the minds of young people who may doubt the importance of learning a second language, like she herself used to do. According to the educator, “
language learning is a way to build bridges so that we can share our experiences, our stories and our interests. As we share, we learn that, as Maya Angelou said in her poem Human Family, ‘we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.’ To me, that’s the key to life.”
With 13 years of experience in teaching English and French as second languages in Canada and abroad, he has an impressive track record.
In 2003, Stephen Hare went abroad to teach English to our French cousins in Paris. His hope was to pass on to his students his vision that bilingualism “
opens us up to the world around us.”
During his time there, however, Hare became increasingly aware of his love for the language of Molière. “
My French friends were very welcoming, and my pupils and students were so motivated to learn English,” he explained. “
So, I told myself that teaching French as a second language in Canada would make me feel the same way in my own country, and it did!”
For the past 12 years, Hare has been teaching French as a second language at Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia. His profession inspires him every day, and he believes that “
teaching is a social act that requires a great deal of mindfulness.” Indeed, teachers never stop thinking about new ways to encourage and motivate their students to learn. Hare says he always starts his work day thinking about the 1993 movie Groundhog Day: “
Every day, you have the opportunity to improve on a few things from the day before, and that keeps me motivated.”
The middle school teacher also says that it’s the small, simple gestures of gratitude that warm his heart. “
This summer, I received an e-mail from a former student,” he recounted. “
She found that every time she thinks she can’t succeed, she tells herself that Mr. Hare believes in her . . . and that makes the difference.”
But Hare also admits having experienced a few setbacks in his career, like the first time he had to apologize to a student for being short with her. Addressing delicate situations like these “
can’t be learned in teacher training, but it’s a much-needed skill.” Seeing that the young student was very upset, Hare knew he was in the wrong, even though he had only wanted to push the student to make an effort that matched her abilities. “
After a sleepless night reflecting on what I did, I apologized sincerely. I’ll never forget how she replied with, ‘I respect that, Mr. Hare.’”
There’s nothing young people value more than authenticity,” he added. “
They know intuitively that everyone makes mistakes, and admitting to them makes us human in their eyes.”
If anyone has walked a mile in the shoes of French immersion students, she has. This elementary school teacher at École Campbelltown in Edmonton, Alberta, was in French immersion from kindergarten all the way through university.
Nicole Tryon was introduced to bilingualism at a very young age through her French immersion program and her parents’ positive attitude. She quickly grew to understand the intrinsic value that speaking a second language brings to our culture and identity. “
I wanted to be able to share that in my practice,” she said.
But Tryon didn’t choose her profession—her profession chose her. After years of being involved with army cadets and working with children and youth in YMCA summer camps, her path to the world of teaching was a natural one. She jumped into this adventure with both feet and is now starting her second year as a French second language teacher. “
I enjoy the unpredictability of students and how every day is different,” she explained. “
Not only do I get to watch them fall in love with the French language, but I also get to be a part of their journey into French.”
Tryon counts herself lucky that she can rely on conditions that are conducive to promoting French in an English-speaking environment, which not everyone can say. “
I am blessed to be working in an environment where everyone values, creates, nurtures and promotes bilingualism in all students,” she said.
As her parents once trusted second language teachers to help her become bilingual, now it’s her turn to support her students in learning a new language. Tryon takes pleasure in watching them progress during the sharing circles she organizes in her classroom every week. “
I had a student who would either participate only in English or blurt out ‘video games!’ when asked what they did the previous evening or weekend,” she recounted. “
A month and a half into this routine, with corrections and French word suggestions, the student smiled at me, then the class, and said, “
J’ai joué les jeux vidéo!” The entire class started clapping, and not only did that student smile for the rest of the day, they continued to use and improve their sentence until the end of the year.”
The Edmonton teacher also tries to give her students opportunities to showcase themselves through show-and-tell activities. For example, she once asked her students to present an object they had brought back from a family trip or an adventure outside Alberta. “
One student decided to create a video using music, photos and text they had written that floated across the screen. Not only was the text in French, but the student had narrated the video after looking up various French words beyond their immediate vocabulary. It truly made me so happy watching this student be passionate about sharing their journey with the class in French!” enthused Tryon.
Asked why bilingualism is so important, Tryon responded: “
As a Canadian, I believe that, beyond understanding and recognition, it’s specifically being appreciative and recognizing the value not only of our two official languages, but also of other languages and cultures, which is what I try to inspire in my students.”.
He’s no stranger to official languages. During the school year, he teaches French as a second language at Souris Regional School in Prince Edward Island, and in the summer, he teaches English as a second language at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown.
Stephen Ferguson is an experienced teacher who began his career in Chicoutimi, Quebec, in 1986 while learning the basics of French himself. Passionate about teaching English as a second language, he enrolled in the Teaching English as a Second Language program at Concordia University.
For Ferguson, teaching is not just about the language: “
What I liked most about ESL teaching was that I was teaching not only the mechanics of the language, but also subjects such as science, literature and social studies in the language.” And so he continued teaching English in Quebec for 10 years, while pursuing graduate studies in comparative Canadian literature in French.
Living in French and teaching in English in Quebec provided him with a unique perspective that enabled him to make the jump to teaching French and to teaching in French in English Canada. “
Living in one official language and teaching the other seemed like a natural fit, so when I moved to English Canada, I began to teach French classes as well as classes in French,” he explained.
What Ferguson enjoys most about his work is the spirit of cooperation. “
I have been fortunate to belong to very supportive communities of professional learning throughout my career,” he said. He went all the way to Yukon to study the neurolinguistic approach to second language teaching with renowned pedagogical consultant Pascal St-Laurent. Ferguson was able to put this new approach to the test when he worked with a great team at the Public Schools Branch in Prince Edward Island, where his career continues to thrive at two local high schools.
The time he spent in Quebec teaching in French schools was filled with memorable moments. “
I was able to share my knowledge of the English language and English subjects while working in a French environment,” he said. “
For me, it was the perfect marriage of both worlds. As a professional, I felt valued for my knowledge and expertise, and as an individual, I felt complete by being able to participate as an equal in my adopted language and culture.”
However, one of his most unforgettable moments came when he was teaching in Grise Fiord, Nunavut, which is called Auyuittuq in Inuktitut, meaning “
place that never thaws.” There, late spring brings both hunting season and year-end exams. That year, a herd of Peary caribou had ventured near the village, which is a rare occurrence. The students planned to set off on a hunting adventure as soon as they finished their ESL exams. Earlier, Ferguson had read a magazine article about what had happened to a herd of Peary caribou in Resolute Bay, where over-enthusiastic locals had unfortunately hunted every last one of them. Since the Peary caribou is not a native species, no hunting quota has been established. Ferguson took the opportunity to incorporate the issue into the final exam by asking, “
Do you believe in the importance of passing on the tradition of caribou hunting to your children and grandchildren? If so, how do you plan to go about this if there are no caribou left?”
After the exam, the students went hunting. When they got back, one of them confided in the teacher. “
One of the Grade 12 students came to see me and said, ‘I thought about what was on the exam, and we didn’t kill all of the caribou.’ That student is now a conservation officer in Nunavut,” recounted Ferguson.
Eager for new adventures, Ferguson took himself off to South Korea for 12 years to teach English. When he got back to Yukon, he dedicated himself to teaching French French as a second language at the elementary school level, which came with its share of challenges. Teaching methods and students’ needs had changed dramatically. “
I quickly immersed myself in professional development with a focus on resource-based and project-based learning, along with learning how to best connect to students’ socio-emotive needs. It was not a quick transition, though.” Fortunately, armed with new social-emotional needs-based skills and support from his colleagues, he was soon able to establish and build relationships with his students.
Over the years, Ferguson has helped thousands of young Canadians learn a second language. But what does bilingualism mean for them? “
In my opinion, bilingualism allows young Canadians opportunities to open doors both outward to a larger Canadian and global community and inward where they can discover new passions and new aspects of their own identity through another language.” He believes that by going the extra mile to learn a second language, young people gain confidence. According to Ferguson, “
mastering another language and immersing ourselves in another culture helps us to see the world through a different lens, which, in turn, promotes tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.”
She’s a sought-after speaker with a passion for technology. She’s also an English second language teacher and a techno-pedagogical advisor at Jonquière CEGEP in Saguenay, Quebec, where she has been teaching since 1996. For the past six years, she has been participating in virtual exchanges with colleagues from other regions, countries and continents.
Where are you from?” Deguire often asks her students this question to make them aware of their own history and culture. The answer, paradoxically, is not so clear-cut for the teacher—an English-speaking Quebecer who is from . . . all over!
Deguire was born in Quebec into a linguistically mixed (English-French) family and considers herself in many ways to be a product of Canada’s official languages policy. The daughter of a military family, she “
grew up in a home that valued and practiced not only both official languages, but also the language and culture of the places we were posted to.” She was educated in English on armed forces bases across Canada and abroad, and she learned German at a young age, as well. “
In recent virtual exchanges with students and teachers overseas,” she added, “
I’ve been trying to better my knowledge of Spanish and Hebrew, and I’m still learning and improving my French. In some way I wished to return the favour, give back what I was receiving.”
After years spent living abroad and being educated in English, Lisa Deguire felt that she hadn’t become fluent enough in her second official language to be able to work in it, so she decided to use her English skills, her true strength, to help others learn a second language. “
I was proud of my bilingual heritage and wanted to share it.”
In her view, language learning and teaching are inclusive—they help people understand one another better. However, language teaching is also a science, an art and a skill. “
It’s a science in that educators need to stay abreast of cognitive research and best practices to better support students in their learning process. It’s an art in that we communicate our passions and our history through words, painting pictures and creating connections. It’s a skill in that we must be able not only to adapt to the needs of our students, but also to vary our teaching strategies,” she explained.
What Lisa Deguire enjoys most about her job is learning from her students, even if that may seem a bit cliché. She sees language teaching as being multidimensional: “
Our profession is a complex array of interactions, communication, words, ideas, cultures, rules and—more importantly—people.” Passionate about “
the design, development and efficient integration of technology in teaching and learning,” Lisa Deguire started teaching just as the Internet was starting to be introduced into classrooms. Today, she says, technology influences not only “
how we teach, but more and more what we teach our students.”
Deguire recently received an Honourable Mention award from the Association québécoise de pédagogie collégiale for her contributions to teaching. She said it was one of the most rewarding and challenging things she has experienced. “
On the one hand, I’m grateful for the recognition of my efforts, but on the other, I can think of so many colleagues who deserve this as much, if not more!” She said she felt that she was representing “
everyone in our English department in accepting the honour, since none of us can succeed without inspiring colleagues. None of us does the job alone; we build on each other’s experience and creativity.”
However, despite the awards and distinctions, Deguire still considers teaching English as a second language in Quebec to be a challenge. She believes that, in a predominantly French-speaking province, teachers of Canada’s majority official language must have a very clear idea of what their goals are: “
We may choose as educators to ignore partisan politics, but the truth is that we are implementing government policies and are therefore part of the system.”
As a language teacher and as a bilingual person, Deguire supports the right of every minority to protect and promote their language and culture. In recent years, this right has been extended to Indigenous languages, which she is pleased about.
When asked what bilingualism means for young Quebecers, Deguire said she prefers to focus on the positive aspects of the question: “
More than 50% of Quebec youth are bilingual. This shows how open young Quebecers are. In our global economy, they are very aware of the importance of respecting and recognizing all languages and cultures. They often know more about their second language than a native speaker. After all, language is the essence of any one person’s identity.”
She’s dedicated, enthusiastic and open minded, and she teaches French as a second language at Smithers Secondary School in the vibrant small town of Smithers, which lies in the heart of the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia.
Robichaud’s passion for her profession ignited during a trip to Europe at the end of high school. She was impressed by the ease with which Europeans speak several languages. “
My childhood home was unilingual, where English was the only language used,” she recounted. “
I realized that I wanted that European quality—to be able to move between different languages with fluidity.”
When she returned to Canada, Robichaud started looking at her options: “
I began to investigate all the incredible programs we have here to help someone learn one of our official languages.” She ended up choosing Université Laval in Québec City, where she completed a four-year bachelor’s degree to improve her French skills. “
My years in Quebec are some of my most cherished memories. Speaking French and being bilingual is a lifelong learning journey for me,” said Robichaud. In addition to confirming her desire to become a teacher, her time in Québec City helped her make an important observation. “
I think what I initially saw as a European quality is an important Canadian quality too: bilingualism.”
Robichaud has been teaching French as a second language for 20 years, now—two decades of showing young people that bilingualism is an opportunity for them “
to grow as individuals, to gain a greater understanding of their maternal language, and to become better learners of their second language.” Even more importantly, “
with bilingualism, there’s this constant engagement of comparing and contrasting the structure of language and expression of ideas,” she added. “
For example, how is this idea represented in English and how is it represented in French? It’s fun to explore.”
Even after all these years, this educator’s enthusiasm is still burning bright. “
I enjoy helping students see the possibilities that learning French can provide, and how speaking French goes beyond the classroom,” she explained. “
I help students realize that being bilingual can be a reality for them, too, no matter how old they are or which program they started French in: immersion or core.” And Robichaud’s class doesn’t focus too much on performance. For her, “
learning French . . . is about creating an experience that enables the student to develop and deepen their language and cultural awareness.”
This is exactly the idea behind a French cooking class that she developed, which she describes as a creative way to “
provide students with an individualized experience of learning one of our official languages and a format for creating a relationship with the language.”. Robichaud admitted, however, that it is difficult to encourage young people to continue their education in their second language. “
This has been a particular challenge, especially at the senior high school levels. And so, I’m trying to encourage students to think about something they love to do and then explore it in French. I love to cook and bake, so I improve and maintain my language skills by engaging in an activity I already enjoy doing.”
Putting it mildly, bilingualism is a big part of Robichaud’s life. “
One of my favorite quotes about bilingualism is from psycholinguist Frank Smith, who said, ‘One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.’”
Her 20 years of experience teaching English as a second language have allowed her to explore many aspects of her profession. She has been teaching at a French-language high school in Quebec’s Outaouais region for the past eight years, and her passion and versatility have not gone unnoticed.
When she started university, Guezen figured she would become an English teacher. However, her career took an unexpected turn when she landed a contract as a second-language teacher at a French school. Luckily, she has never been one to back down from a challenge. “
It was three days before the school year began, and I was thrown into the deep end. I loved it. Not to say it wasn’t difficult—it was—but also worth it,” she said. “
I’ve never looked back. I’ve stayed in the French system, every day trying to show my students how important and fun English can be.”
The versatile educator also grabs every professional development opportunity that comes her way, whether it’s connecting with high school students of all ages; teaching in other cities, like Saint-Jérôme, Lachute and Outremont, and even other countries, like Japan; or switching from a regular to an enriched program. Said Guezen, “
I’ve become, as many of us do, a jack-of-all-levels. One of the only aspects of this profession that I have yet to attempt—and would so like to—is to have a student teacher to work with.”.
Beyond the variability of her profession, Guezen takes advantage of being able to discuss things she is passionate about with young people who have their own opinions, and of having the creative freedom to design her own lesson plans. “
Each new year is a clean slate with limitless potential,” she explained, adding, “
I love the debating, the instruction, the sharing and building of trust. I enjoy the moments when the students finally believe they can do it; when they speak in complete sentences or recite a poem they wrote. I love that I can open doors for them by teaching them this language.”
When asked about the challenges she has faced during her career, Guezen admitted that “
the one that vexes me most is one that’s always present: the pushback to learning English.” She can’t abide “
the perspective that learning English isn’t necessary,” or even useful. “
I’ve fought against this my entire career.”
And that’s not all she has to deal with. The diversity of classrooms today is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges facing second-language teachers. “
I’ve had students who couldn’t understand a word that was coming out of my mouth sitting beside bilingual children ready for their next Tolkien novel. Trying to keep every one of these types of students engaged is a daily challenge. I remember years where I felt like I was teaching three different classes in one.”
Guezen believes that bilingualism is an essential part of Canada’s identity, however, hence her hard work. As she puts it, “
when you know another language, it means you don’t expect everyone to conform to you. You have the capacity to accommodate others. It balances ego and allows students to realize their place in Canada. In Europe, many students learn three languages, so in order to fit in with our global community, you have to at least learn a second language.”
Kristie St Croix
She’s been promoting bilingualism among young people for nearly 18 years. How? By teaching French as a second language. After a six-year stint in Calgary, Alberta, she’s now a teacher at Elizabeth Park Elementary School in Paradise, Newfoundland and Labrador.
St Croix’s love affair with bilingualism started early. When she was 12, she was in a late French immersion program where she not only learned a second language, but also—and, more importantly—met inspiring teachers: “teachers who left me wanting to learn more, discover and experience culture, beyond what a classroom could offer,” she explained.
After completing high school, St Croix still wanted more. Living in a variety of French-speaking communities during her post-secondary studies, including Montréal, was an eye-opening experience for her. “
I began to realize how important my Canadian identity was to me and what being Canadian meant,” said St Croix. “
I began to realize how much I identified as a citizen of this beautiful country, and being able to communicate in both of its official languages was very important to my journey.” This isn’t at all surprising since, as she says, “
bilingualism is a treasured gift of opportunity, one that offers many adventures and meaningful life experiences.”
St Croix said that as she gets older, bilingualism is playing an increasingly significant role in her life. It has opened many doors for her, both personally and professionally, from making new friends to better understanding those around her. For this passionate teacher, bilingualism is, even today, much more than the ability to communicate in two different languages. “
It’s about the path one takes to acquire that language and all of the things one learns along that path,” she explained. “
It’s about taking risks, living and experiencing different cultures, and gaining an understanding and appreciation that we are all different—and that is beautiful.”
The desire to pass these values on and to guide children on their academic path was a driving force behind St Croix’s decision to become a second language teacher—in the hope that one day, these children “
will connect with others and understand tolerance and embrace all differences among us, as global citizens.” Her experience quickly taught her that young people, regardless of age, are curious and eager to learn. This is why she tries to instill in them “
the confidence of knowing that they can learn and do new things as long as they’re willing to work hard and love what they’re doing!”
The Newfoundland and Labrador teacher is always ready to help her students, and one in particular had a profound impact on her. “
There was this one boy who had many challenges. He had difficulty making connections with others and also needed a lot of support in the classroom. He was a boy who was seeking friendship and acceptance and was looking for reassurance.” St Croix worked with him for many hours to develop his confidence and curiosity. As he began feeling supported by his peers, the young boy started to initiate his own learning projects, improve his grades and make meaningful friendships. “
I was moved by his determination to succeed and make progress. His hard work and positive attitude were inspirational to all of those around him. Even when things were very difficult for him, he was willing to try and never got discouraged.”
St Croix described one of the most important lessons from her career to date: “
I believe that a teacher always has the opportunity to learn and that sometimes the greatest opportunity to learn is from the students who surround us.”
She grew up in an academic environment and quickly fell in love with teaching. Currently on staff at Sainte-Lucie Elementary School in Val-d’Or, Quebec, she has been teaching English as a second language for nearly 30 years.
With teaching being a bit of a family business—her mother was a remedial teacher and her aunts were teachers—Jetté knew from the beginning that the profession could be an interesting option for her. Although she hesitated briefly between being a teacher and a translator, it was her “
need to interact with people” that finally tipped the balance.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in early childhood and elementary education, Jetté started her career as a homeroom teacher. Two years later, she was offered a job teaching English as a second language (ESL) in an elementary school. Little did she know that she would end up being able to combine her twin passions for language and education. “
I accepted the job, figuring I would do it for a year or so. But then I caught the bug . . . big time. So I got my ESL teaching certificate, and the rest, as they say, is history!” explained the teacher who’s been working at the same school for over 20 years.
Jetté’s career has been studded with unforgettable moments, like her experience as a teacher in Quebec’s new ESL pilot program for grades one and two. “
For two years, our small team of teachers—there were just five of us across the province that first year—validated the program, with the support of the Ministry of Education.”
The Val-D’Or educator has a distinguished track record. In 2013, she won the SPEAQ award from the Société pour le perfectionnement de l’enseignement de l’anglais, langue seconde, au Québec. According to Jetté, “
receiving this honour from my peers was incredibly fulfilling and encouraging.” In 2016, her work garnered her the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers’ H.H. Stern Award, given annually to a second language teacher in recognition of their innovative teaching practices.
Being a second language teacher is not all fun and awards, though. “
It’s not easy being a specialist and having to work in several schools. You have to be very organized,” cautioned Jetté. However, “
You have to treat changes as challenges,” she advised. “
Yes, there are changes that are more demanding, like when reforms bring new programs, but being part of a strong team makes all the difference.” Jetté counts herself lucky to teach alongside colleagues who energize and motivate her, and to work with administrators who believe in what she’s doing.
This inspiring teacher loves the variety she finds in her profession and is very proud of what she does. “
Being able to watch a student grow and develop from Grade 1 to Grade 6 . . . that’s priceless,” Jetté enthused. “
Learning a language is a cultural thing for me. It helps us to understand and appreciate our own culture and to make us more open to others. It’s a little like adding extra windows to how we see the world.”