Becky has been a volunteer translator with Freelang since March 2007, so that is exactly six years at the time we publish this interview. Becky is a French teacher in Ontario, so we asked her about her job and about the particular place of French in this English-speaking province of Canada.
Interview by Beaumont
Published March 13, 2013
Becky, you teach French in an English speaking part of Canada. Are you French yourself, or are you from Quebec?
I am actually English, from Ontario. I come from an English-speaking home but I had an amazing French teacher who made a strong impression on me. I grew up near a French community called Penetanguishine but learned to speak French before I met any French-speaking locals. I have since lived in Quebec (Shawinigan and Montreal) and I’ve traveled around La Belle Province quite frequently.
Who are your students and how old are they?
I currently teach Grade 4 French Immersion. My students are 9 and 10 years old.
Do you teach them standard French or French from Quebec? Could you elaborate on the reasons for the choice?
My accent is most comparable to a Montreal accent, so that is what my students will hear the most. I teach them both Parisian and Québec French when differences arise, explaining the differences to my students. I was taught Parisian French up until I studied at university. I could barely understand my professors from Montreal and it took me a long time to adjust. I have found that being able to speak Québecois French has been much more useful living in Canada than knowing Parisian French. Although I often find Parisian French much easier to understand, I want my students to be able to understand the French they are most likely to be exposed to, living in Canada.
Are there a lot of phonetic differences between standard French and French from Quebec?
Absolutely. When I lived in Québec I was teased a lot when I would switch back and fourth throughout a sentence. There were also awkward times when I pronounced something the standard French way and was thought to be saying a bad word in Québec French. Standard French is very pronounced and well articulated. Also, due to the bilingualism in Montreal, their French sounds like it comes more from the throat.
What about the vocabulary, are there many different words or expressions?
French from Québec, especially with the youth, has been played with to become more unique to Québec. It is called “Joual” and is a controversial language change between younger and older generations. Several English words come in to play in the Québec French as well. I was amazed when I was teaching in Québec to hear how casually the big English swear words were used in French. For instance, in an Ontario school, saying the “f” word will get you straight to the principal’s office. However, in Québec, my high school students used it constantly to mean “messed up” or “darn”. It was quite a shock when they would scream it during a test because they didn’t understand a question. It was also interesting to hear how they had conjugated it to suit the situation.
Are there any differences as far as syntax is concerned?
Not really. Words are definitely shortened though, especially with internet use and texting. It can be very difficult to read but they are generally in the same order. Also, several of my Quebec high school students would use poor grammar due to homonyms (“Ils ce parlent” instead of “Ils se parlent”) or at times they would just cut the words down (“Ys parle”). This was always corrected but I’ve since noticed the same types of errors with adults I have befriended on Facebook. I’m a bit of a grammar stickler so it always surprises me to see how many people make these errors.
Do your students learn French by choice, or is it mandatory for them?
We have Core French, Extended French and French Immersion. Core French is mandatory from Grades 4-9 in Ontario (although some provinces have recently reduced the amount of mandatory French). Extended French and French Immersion are options for those who are interested in learning French at a faster pace. It is generally the parents’ decision but students tend to enjoy it. I had one student who was pulled from French Immersion by his mother’s choice and he was very disappointed about it. I work at a dual-track school, meaning we have English classes with Core French and French Immersion classes. My students tend to take pride in their increased knowledge of French over other kids their age. They also have a very strong understanding about how French can help them get jobs in the future in Canada. Their parents are known to be quite involved in their education. As a teacher, this can be a blessing or a curse. You often feel like a politician and most of your free time is spent proactively engaging the parent community to ensure positive relationships are built.
Generally speaking, is learning French mandatory in Canadian schools?
Yes. Everyone learns some form of French, unless they are taking a Native language instead and are exempted from French.
How would you describe the position of French in English speaking Canada: is it widely taught, are there other languages in competition?
French is the prominent second language still being taught in Canada. Native languages do compete in some communities, but overall, French is the most taught. In some more multicultural communities, other languages are becoming more popular. In Toronto, it is not uncommon for children to go to Chinese school on Saturdays. Some of my students learn Arabic or Spanish on the weekends (on top of speaking English and French). However, it may be worth noting that in English parts of Canada, our level of French tends to be much lower than the level of English spoken by same-aged students in a French community. English speakers are not exposed to as much extra-curricular French as French speakers are. As a French teacher, I try very hard to give my students the best level of French and most exposure possible to the language.
What kind of teaching material do you use in class?
We have commercial programs that we use like La Cheneliere and Litteratie en action. We also use GB+ books and testing kits. Some schools I taught at used Class Act for primary students struggling with learning their French. Sometimes we will use books like Maths faciles or Superzap (from Québec). We often create our own materials as French resources cost twice as much as English ones. It is very expensive for a French Immersion school when it is starting out and expanding.
Are your students motivated? Outside of the class, what are their opportunities to be exposed to French language?
Most of my students are very motivated. I encourage them to always speak French in my presence, no matter when they see me. There are some French clubs in the community that offer programs or fun activities. There are also French clubs in the school. My students will write their own songs in French and sing them for me at school. They are very cute. Some of them enjoy being able to speak French with a sibling when their parents can’t understand them. In class, they get rewards and chances to win prizes when they speak French or correct someone who said something with poor grammar. This encourages them to focus on improving their own French. I only have 2 students out of 27 who don’t seem to like speaking French. Both of these students entered French Immersion later than the others so I think this will change over time.
What are your students’ main difficulties when learning French language?
Since my students learn French so young, they remember what they are taught very well. We call this fossilizing. Unfortunately, French teachers are in high demand in Ontario. For a new teacher in English, it can take 5-10 years of teaching before they get hired permanently. For a French teacher, most are hired straight after graduating from their Bachelor of Education. I have worked with several French teachers who have awful grammar and make several frequent errors when they speak with their students. The students, like little sponges, pick all of these errors up as their own. It is very hard to correct these once they are “fossilized”. Several of my students say “J’ai a un ami” or “J’ai le”. It drives me crazy but with the reward system I have in place, they are encouraged to correct themselves when they say something like this.
And for you, what are the main difficulties about teaching French?
The lack of resources can be quite challenging. You have to plan what you are going to teach and then you have to create it, too, making the process twice as long. Also, as mentioned above, it is very frustrating to be working with French teachers who do not speak a high quality French. The parents can also be exhausting. There are a lot of added pressures when teaching French Immersion. For our “Meet the Teacher” nights, every student’s parents will attend in French Immersion. My friends who teach English may have one or two show up. French Immersion teachers spend an enormous amount of time communicating with parents. I’d say on an average day I spend 1-2 hours after work communicating with parents. That adds up and when we have to create all of our own resources, there isn’t much time left for anything else.
Is keeping discipline a problem in your class?
No but it has been in the past. Sometimes students just don’t respond as quickly to their second language. You need to learn how to be organized and be sure the students are aware of the expectations placed upon them. I work in a rougher community and I’ve managed to adjust to that. When I worked at schools in nicer neighbourhoods, I didn’t really have to do much disciplining. Building a good rapport with your students is extremely important. Being clear, fair and consistent goes a long way.
What are the main satisfactions of your job?
My students. Especially with the political changes going on in Ontario for teachers this year. I’ve reconsidered my decision to be a teacher several times this year. My husband is also a teacher and we are barely making ends meet. We have no children yet and don’t even own our own house, yet we are financially struggling. I often think about how much more money I could make going into translation. If you don’t care about your students and get little joys when they learn or succeed, you will be very unhappy.
Would you have any advice for our young readers who think of taking up a teaching career?
Try it out. Volunteer in a class first. You will find out very quickly if it is something for you. If you decide it is, talk with as many teachers you respect as possible. There are lots of little tips and tricks that make it much easier. Being organized and dedicated is a must.
Do you have colleagues from France, or do you know any French teachers who come from France?
I don’t have any colleagues from France. I did have classmates that came from other French-speaking countries but no one from France sadly. That would’ve been fun!
How did you first find Freelang’s website?
I think I was looking into a translation career and thought maybe I would just try out volunteering as a translator first. I looked up a few sites and liked this one the best.
You are one of our volunteer translators, can you tell us about this experience so far?
I love it. I have been asked to translate a large variety of things. I really enjoy that. It’s like being given a puzzle to solve. Beaumont has been fantastic, too. It is nice to work with professional and kind people. Translating is very fun to do. The only things I’ve been asked to translate that I didn’t like were those that were obviously last minute projects a student was trying to cheat on. As a teacher, it’s a bit of a conflict of interest. I only think I had one or two of those though. The rest were fun and gave me a chance to learn about something new.
Do you have any favourite website that you wish to promote or recommend to our readers?
Bonpatron is a fun website when you are trying to learn how to translate. It explains the changes it wants you to make. TVO or BBC have fun games or videos to learn French for younger kids. Atelier is a good website with resources for teachers (the English version is E Workshop).
Thank you very much, Becky!