Working knowledge: Quebec expands on-the-job French lessons for newcomers

February 18, 2019

By Globe and Mail |

Wang Weidong’s shop in Chinatown offers the typical bounty of the Montreal dépanneur − lottery tickets, toothpaste, fireworks, an entire wall of snacks and, of course, beer and wine. One recent morning, the store also featured novel fare: French lessons.

“Huit dollars,” Mr. Wang said, struggling to pronounce “eight dollars” in French.

“Est-ce que je peux avoir un reçu?” said his teacher, Félix Pigeon, asking for a receipt as he stood before Mr. Wang at the counter.

Mr. Wang was a willing pupil in the expanding frontier of French-language learning in Quebec. As the province seeks to ensure newcomers can work and function in French, it’s increasing funding by $450,000 for on-the-job lessons offered at neighbourhood businesses across Montreal.

In Mr. Wang’s case, that means turning the ubiquitous Montreal dépanneur into a classroom. For two hours a week, Mr. Pigeon, a master’s student in literature, exchanges with Mr. Wang at the counter or between store shelves, doling out French phrases as easily as Mr. Wang dispenses ramen soup and chocolate bars. Customers come and go as Mr. Wang works the cash and gamely tries to grasp the intricacies of French grammar and verb conjugation.

“French is important here. I know that if I want to make my business better, I have to speak French,” said Mr. Wang, 51, who came to Montreal from Beijing two years ago with his wife and now 8-year-old son.

“But I don’t have time to go to school. I have to work.”

Mr. Wang’s views underscore a fundamental reality for many immigrants to Quebec: Learning French is essential to building their new lives, but, like Mr. Wang, they’re unlikely to find time to visit a classroom after long hours on the job.

The on-the-job courses have become a success story within Quebec’s vast undertaking known as “la francisation” – the province’s multimillion-dollar efforts to turn immigrants into French speakers.

The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government announced funding this month to expand the workplace program in the city, which is run by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. The initiative began in 2016 with just 30 immigrant merchants; more than 500 are expected to take part this year.

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