At the end of last year, when I was about to finish Grade 12 French, I realized that I could not really speak French at all. I mean, I understood the grammar, and I could read reasonably difficult texts in French, but when it came to oral communication, I was completely lost. So, I decided to apply to the Explore program, a 5-week immersion French program that brings students from across Canada together in various cities and towns in Quebec.
At the beginning of July, I jumped on a plane in Toronto and flew to La Ville de Quebec. But Quebec City was not my final destination; I studied French in the small town of Jonquière, near Lac Saint-Jean, two hours north of Quebec. If you Google Jonquière, you get the impression that it is an average, mid-sized city. There is a summary of Jonquiere’s merger with Chicoutimi and La Baie to form Saguenay, and the population, which is about 60 000. What Wikipedia doesn’t tell you is that all of the normal “city” amenities are housed in Chicoutimi, about 10km down the highway, so Jonquière seems more like a town of 5000. This was a bit of a shock for someone who has lived in Toronto for her entire life.
With brings me to one of the major themes of my trip: la choc des cultures, culture clash. Life in small-town Quebec is very different from life in Toronto. Even though it is only twelve hours North-East of Toronto, it is like a whole different world. For one thing, Quebecois men are very… forward. No girl can walk the street of Jonquière after about 4pm without men yelling at her from cars, balconies, and even bicycles. Also, educational ideals are very different in Quebec. We tend to believe that getting a university education is the only way to be successful in life, but this is not a common belief in the Saguenay region. I met a few teens from Jonquiere and Chicoutimi, and though most of these people attended Cegep, only one of them wanted to go on to university. One was completing an engineering specialization at Cegep, another has since dropped out of Cegep in favour of working two jobs, and a third had quit Cegep to pursue his dream of being a rapper. This seemed strange to me, but in their culture, it was quite normal.
This culture clash didn’t only occur between the members of the Explore program and the citizens of Jonquière, though. It also existed among the 180 participants in the program. I met one girl from a small island, population 200, between Quebec and Newfoundland. Her experience in Jonquière was the opposite of mine; for her, it seemed like a big city. I had never before met someone from a town that small and her life seemed very different – almost, for lack of a better word, sheltered. Most people in the program came from Canada, but there was also a girl from Finland, five students from Mexico, and two students from the US. Because of the geographical diversity of the program, I learned hundreds of new things about Canada and the rest of the world.
But what about the actual French program? Well, in short, it was great. My oral French got much better over those five weeks. We had very small classes, about 12-20 people, that were created based on a French proficiency test. My teacher was very good as well; she is from Montreal, she bikes competitively, and she is working towards a PhD in Quebecois Literature.
Outside of the classroom, there were cultural activities almost every day, such as movies and traditional dance lessons, and more importantly, the program was FRANCAIS OBLIGATOIRE! We were not allowed to speak English from the first day of the program to the day we left, and if we were caught cheating we risked 5% of our grade. Of course, everyone bent this rule a little bit, but we still learned a lot more than we would have if the French had stayed in the classroom.
If you have the chance to do the Explore program or something like it, go for it. Although it was difficult to speak that much French, and it was disorienting to be in such a different culture so close to home, the benefits are very much worth the downsides. I am now in contact with people from across Canada, and I think that I have a much better grasp of the French language. You probably will too, and you may just have the best summer of your life while you’re at it.