Say “Bonjour” in Vancouver

Photo by Betty Shea

The 2016 Census shows that just over 57,000 individuals in British Columbia, or roughly 1.25% of the population, speak French as their mother tongue. Yet, French language and culture is alive and well in B.C. According to data published last month by the B.C. government, students enrolled in French immersion programs increased by about 30% over the last 10 years and now represent about 9.5% of the overall student population in the province.

For those who want to learn and practice French, Vancouver offers many opportunities ranging from French classes through local universities and colleges, to membership in cultural institutions, to French language meetups.

Foreign languages and new perspectives

Those who learn a foreign language often cite the benefits that come from gaining a different perspective. Languages have historical context and cultural emphases that expose the language student to both obvious and subtle differences in world views. By viewing the familiar through a different lens, a foreign language can also lead to a deeper understanding of one’s own language and culture.

David Varty, lawyer and Honorary Consul of Senegal, started to spend more time studying French in university.

“Learning a second language increases the understanding of one’s own first language,” he says. “It exposes an individual to another culture, different traditions and a different way of thinking.”

Knowledge of French has opened many doors for Varty, both professionally and personally. It made communicating with local Senegalese easier. It also made travelling to other French-speaking countries, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Switzerland and Luxembourg, richer and more meaningful.

For Canadians learning French is also a direct way of learning one’s own culture. Michael Huenefeld, a project management instructor, points to Canada’s official bilingualism as a reason why he makes time to practice French. “French language and culture are an integral part of Canadian history and society – this is one of the reasons why French is important to me,” he says.

Language and culture

For those looking to learn French, local universities and colleges, such as UBC Extended Learning, offer language classes from beginner level to advanced levels. Another way to learn French more effectively is by taking an interest in French cultural events happening around the city. Huenefeld, a native speaker of English and Spanish, started to study French at the age of 14. “French language and French culture go hand in hand – each helps us understand the other,” he says. “In my case, as a boy I started to become interested in one essential aspect of French culture – history. This helped motivate me to study French language later.”

Apéro Spécial Crêpes hosted by Alliance Française. | Photo by Betty Shea

Hélène Creusot, event coordinator at Alliance Française de Vancouver (AFV), believes that learning a foreign culture is part and parcel of learning a foreign language.

“I don’t see how you can learn a language without learning about a culture,” says Creusot. “Even if you look in detail at the words, every word in French or in another language has a history and a culture. When you learn about the culture it’s easier to learn the language.”

Creusot emphasizes that the culture promoted by AFV is diverse.

“French culture is not only from France,” says Creusot. “We had Celebrate Africa [in February]. It’s the largest continent where we speak French. We work a lot with French-Canadian associations. The exhibition in March [Gabriel Martins: Rues de Montréal] is about the streets of Montreal. It’s Francophonie culture.”

Canada is a member of La Francophonie, an organization made up of 84 states and governments using French as a common language. AFV is celebrating International Francophonie Day throughout the month of March with various events including a concert by two Swiss artists.

Social aspects of language learning

Vancouver offers many opportunities to practice French in a social setting. For example, AFV hosts about 60 events each year that are open to the general public. There are also many meetups where participants can find others who want to practice French.

Varty has been organizing French-speaking events for 15 years and currently hosts a weekly breakfast meetup for French speakers of all levels. “Any language will wither if not spoken regularly,” he says. “Getting together once a week gives participants an opportunity to speak. The added benefits that come from the meetups are camaraderie and friendships.”

AFV also tries to accommodate French speakers of all levels.

“Most of our events are bilingual,” explains Creusot. “The movies in Movie Club always have English subtitles. At the Apéro, we have some people who don’t speak French. We have beginner students who come and they can say ‘Bonjour’ and after that they switch to English.”

The apéritif is a French tradition of having a drink and snacks after work and before dinner. It is a social event where people can relax and talk about their day. Creusot tries to introduce a different theme for each Apéro. January’s theme was galette des rois, a pastry traditionally eaten at Epiphany, a Christian feast day. February’s theme was crêpes in recognition of Candlemas, a Christian festival. She likes events like the Apéro because it brings together regulars and newcomers.

“We have students, members and new people coming who have heard about the event and are curious and want to know more and to meet new people,” says Creusot. “It’s really fun. What you can expect from coming to one of these Apéros is meeting a lot of people from different countries, who speak different languages, are different ages, and with different levels of French.”

For Alliance Française events, visit

To participate in a French language Meetup, visit