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Friendship Force's Presentation to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada

On June 21 2013, representatives of My Language Exchange and Friednship Force International presented to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada the benefits of using language exchange practice to promote bilingualism in Canada.

The following is the transcript of the presentation of Eileen Howell, Marketing Consultant FFI (Languages) of Friendship Force and a language learner and member of My Language Exchange for several years.

Learning French and Making Friends

Everyone who has become bilingual as an adult, knows that becoming fluent, requires all the things you learn in class, and a whole lot more. How to get that is the big challenge. Canada's first Commissioner of Official Languages, Keith Spicer, was challenged to get enough Anglophones speaking French, early enough, to meet the new language requirements in the Federal Civil Service. So he helped start Canadian Parents for French. I was part of that movement starting a chapter in Drumheller, Alberta 10 years later. This was in an era when having French on a loaf of bread meant it would not sell. I lived to tell the tale of French Immersion in Drumheller and CPF provided the political will all across Canada, that has resulted in over 300,000 Anglophones becoming bilingual thanks to French Immersion.

But, learning to speak French, without also creating friendships with French speakers, means losing these gains when school's out. Today, we have the challenge to create links, bonds and connections between Canada's two language groups so that we create real friendships, not just work relationships. I think it's time for another grass roots initiative, this time using new technology and exchanges for adults, to create real friends in the other official language. My Language Exchange and Friendship Force International are ways to do just that. At the age of 60, almost 8 years ago, I decided it was my turn to learn French. After more than 1000 hours of classes and more than $5000 from my own pocket, I passed the advanced intermediate level with high marks. However, I could neither speak nor understand spoken French.

Ten days in Jonquière did start me talking, but even there, I did not spend enough time with native speakers, I spent too much time with other Anglophones speaking broken French. And then, my relationship with my host family ended when I went home.. In the real world, bilinguals immediately switched to English. Even those whose English was worse than my French.

I could see that if you had to learn French, not just wanted to do it, you could get pretty demoralized and start thinking like those people in Drumheller did twenty- five years ago. I was not ready to quit, yet, and not ready to bankrupt myself trying, either. I watched how children learn to talk and I tried to reconstruct such a milieu for myself.

I happened upon . It was a breakthrough for me. It's inexpensive, I do not have to leave home and I choose my partners because of shared interests and compatibility. Neither age nor level of ability in the other language matters. All that matters is that each one chooses the partner of his own volition and remains in the relationship because it is mutually beneficial. My first partner was a 22 year old from New Caledonia who spoke quite good English at a point where I could hardly put together one sentence. We talked daily. Her progress after two weeks was so noticeable that her teacher was asking her, to ask me, how to say some things in English. Sometimes my French is better than the other's English and sometimes it's the other way around.

I created a family of 12, ranging in age today from 33 to 77 and it comes to me via Skype from all over the world. Like a child who shows everyone his new toy, I started by telling each of them, the same story. Each one corrected me and my story improved till by Friday it was pretty good. Today I can talk about world events and discuss articles from Le Monde and L'actualité switching then to the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. I'm not very eloquent in French but I talk with my partner who is, then I'm more eloquent in English when it's his turn. Language partners listen patiently, correct a little and become friends. It is a sort of sheltered immersion, as opposed to standing panicked at the front of a long line ordering fast-food in French. Nevertheless sheltered immersion only goes so far because we speak clearly , one-on-one with no background noise and there is always the chat screen as a safety net.

Direct and dynamic contact with native speakers is the next step in becoming fluent and confident. FFI, the 40 year expert in group home-stays, provides cultural immersion with groups and individuals talking at a normal rate using both formal and informal vocabulary, living as they normally do. Friendship Force International is a network of 360 clubs in 57 countries who exchange hospitality in what are like student exchanges for adults.

This winter, I travelled to France with my husband, meeting my language partners in their homes. Then I spent two months in Paris, participating three times a week, in a wonderful bar event called Franglish. It's a sort of speed-dating for language learners without romance. There we met over 200 French people needing to learn English, mostly young professionals. The French who once considered it a matter of national pride not to speak English, now, need to learn English to survive, particularly in the EU. However, the French cannot find enough Anglophones learning French with whom to find language partners. Furthermore, French speaking immigrants to Canada and native Quebeckers compete with the French for the scarce Anglophones learning French. Where are the anglophone learners of French? They are in the Canadian Public Service and you have links to them. I hope you will help us find them. I am sure they would appreciate the opportunity to make friends with ordinary Quebeckers and ordinary people from the Francophonie. I just know that making friends with real francophones uncomplicated by money, history or work competition would go a long way to improving the mood of anglophones learning French.

To summarize, we can offer
  1. Language partners on Skype
  2. Immersion for Francophones in our FF exchanges in all the English speaking countries
  3. Immersion for Anglophones in Quebec, France, Guadeloupe and New Caledonia.
  4. In the next few months we have 55 exchanges in the English speaking world, each having space to add francophones wanting to improve their English. For example, September 4th available for Francophones to join a group of English speaking FF members from Ottawa in Cornwall, UK. Also joining this group is one person from Belgium and another from Normandie. For both of these people it will be English immersion with a group of British hosts and English speaking Canadians... all of us struggling a little with the various accents. I hope The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages can help publicize these opportunities with MLE and FFI. I hope that more people can know the pleasure of making friends who enriched one's life and make learning another language worth the effort.


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