“Bonjour, enchantée, assieds-toi!”

Hair stylist Andria Falconer in her Côte-des-Neiges salon.

Hair stylist Andria Falconer in her Côte-des-Neiges salon.

Credit: Amélie Philibert

In 5 seconds

A unique initiative helps small Montreal neighbourhood businesses to offer service in French, not just English.

With pride in her voice, Andria Falconer switches to French to greet a visitor at her Victoria Avenue hair salon in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges district. Originally from Jamaica, Falconer came to Canada back when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was still Prime Minister, and in all that time she never learned much French. This winter, however, she took part in a one-of-a-kind language project.

For two hours every week, she was visited at her hair salon by a   Université de Montréal student who taught her to use French at work. Not only did the student show Falconer how to introduce herself and take appointments, but gave her the words to describe all the tools of her trade in French — from hair dryers, to combs and brushes, to dyes and colourings.

“A language is easier to learn when the instruction takes place in a real-life setting,” explained Falconer’s teacher, Camille Anctil-Raymond, a French literature student at UdeM. The tutorials were not so much a French course but more of a “conversation workshop” during which Falconer learned French in a practical and enjoyable way," she said.

For her part, the hair stylist has nothing but praise for her mentor. “She made everything so easy, as did the fact that I didn’t have to leave the salon,” Falconer said. Better still, the tutorials were free.

Made-to-measure training

Spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal in partnership with UdeM's Bureau de valorisation de la langue française et de la Francophonie, the language initiative saw 20 UdeM students visit some 30 small businesses in Côte-des-Neiges for one-on-one meetings. Launched in January, the pilot project ran for three months. Côte-des-Neiges was selected because it is one of the most ethnically diverse districts in Montreal and because a number of complaints were received from francophone residents who claimed to be unable to obtain service in French from some local merchants.

“This is an innovative program that complemented what already exists for the purposes of francization,” said Monique Cormier, UdeM's  associate vice-rector of the French Language and Francophonie, and drector of the Bureau de valorisation.

The Chamber of Commerce was already active in the district, helping small businesses obtain a francization certificate from the Office québécois de la langue française, the government agency tasked with seeing that Quebec's Charter of the French Language is respected. Over the years, the issue of unilingual English signs in the area has been largely resolved, but the use of French in the workplace remains  problematic.

The university gets involved

A solution came during a symposium attended by Cormier and Chamber of Commerce's francisization director, Marie-Laure Konan. After they met, a deal was struck: the university agreed to participate in the recruitment of French-language trainers and oversee their activities with local businesses for the duration of the initiative.

“This project testified to the university’s firm commitment to participate in and serve the needs of its community,” Cormier said. “The recruitment was open not only to UdeM students studying the teaching of French as a second language and French instruction, but also to those enrolled in linguistics, translation and French literature programs. The idea was to put together a varied cohort of candidates.” While previous teaching experience was certainly an asset, the selection criteria aimed wider: candidates had to have a marked interest in intercultural relations, and possess the qualities of empathy, resourcefulness and creativity.

Another sought-after attribute was inventiveness: although supervised, the students were largely left to themselves to develop the program content that would match as closely as possible the needs of those they were mentoring. "This was a truly enriching experience on numerous levels," recalled Anctil-Raymond, the hair stylist's tutor. "I had excellent exchanges with Andria, both from an intercultural and intergenerational standpoint. I now know all about her life story, her development and so much more about her culture.”

Using Quebec French

One thing that made the language initiative special was that the student mentors used the Québec French method known as Par ici as a pedagogical tool. The method employs vocabulary and case studies and simulations that are specific to the province. Instead of using European French terminology and discussing things like the history of the Eiffel Tower, the tutors and business owners spoke Quebec French and talked about typical Quebec subjects like winter, tuques and mittens, and  Radio-Canada TV shows.

Once a week, the mentors prepared a report on the progress of their  training, and once a month the entire team got together to hear from each member about their experience. The students also had access to a shared file on the Internet where they could post or consult various work tools. A new interactive community was thus created to document the project.

Extending the program

A comprehensive project review will be done to help the Chamber of Commerce decide whether or not to extend the program to other districts of Montreal. Should the duration of the project be prolonged for certain linguistic communities? What worked well and what not so well? Was a proper evaluation conducted? The answers aren't yet in, but one thing is for sure: this type of tutoring works. To get small businesses to switch to French in a meaningful and lasting way, their owners must receive one-on-one attention and support.


(Article and sidebar by Suzanne Dansereau)

3 questions for Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal (and UdeM graduate in economics, 1987 and 1992)

Why is the Chamber interested in the francization of small businesses?

The business community wants linguistic peace in Montreal, because linguistic tensions give rise to social tensions. The Chamber of Commerce also wants a proper balance between seeveral things: our collective desire to protect the French language, the effective integration of immigrants, whom we need, and the necessity of recognizing that the international language of commerce is English. We believe that even if French is not mastered at the very outset, it can indeed be learned later on with the help of the right programs.

How did the Chamber of Commerce come to create a program specifically targeting small businesses?

Since 2008, we have been actively working on promoting francization in daily life. Experience made it clear that we needed to simplify the process by offering support geared to the needs of small businesses and by employing a personalized approach.

Will there be a follow-up?

If the results prove to be positive, the program should absolutely be extended. I can’t yet make any assumptions about the results of the project or about the government’s desire to continue to help finance the exercise, but the feedback we have received from the business owners, tutors and the public has been highly favourable, and there is genuine enthusiasm about what has been accomplished. In any event, the originality of the program is certainly attracting attention. We recently got a request from Île-de-France, the Paris region, looking to adopt our formula.

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