Newcomers are the new francophiles

Photo courtesy of L’Alliance Française de Vancouver

Vive la langue française! A quirky historical fact – prior to the Gold Rush in 1858, French was the most spoken language in western Canada. French also has a long and illustrative history in the international arena aside from Canada. INSEAD, a reputable international business school, ranked French number two after English and ahead of Mandarin and Spanish in its 2018 list of world’s most powerful languages, based on criteria of geography, economy, communication, knowledge, media and diplomacy.


For those who learn French these days in Vancouver, some see the language as a door opener in Canada and others just love the language.

A trend Karen Rolston, director of the Career and Professional Program at UBC extended learning, has seen in recent years is that immigrants who were not exposed to French in the past are interested in taking up the language after they moved to Canada.

“Most students are professionals. We see 50/50 with half learning for work-related purposes and the other half learning for travel or personal interest. With French there is definitely a more committed group that goes to the advanced levels,” she says. According to her, UBC extended learning French program sees over 600 registrations per calendar year for its evening, weekend and online classes.

To each his/her own – À chacun(e) ses raisons

I am almost obsessive at this point about French, but I don’t have the opportunity to speak it very much,” says Luke Auffenberg, during a Sunday event for the Vancouver French-language meetup with more than 20 people gathering around in a coffeeshop to practice their French.

Auffenberg, a U.S native, started learning French at McGill University after studying Spanish and Latin in his teenage years. After his recent move to Vancouver, he started looking into permanent residency and found out he can get a lot of extra points for a certain proficiency level in French.

Motivated by his love for languages and to pass the comprehensive language test in December, Auffenberg is spending at least one hour every day outside of work to study French, plus coming to the two-hour weekend meetup to practice his conversation skills. “It is a concentrated and extensive effort, reading graphic novels, listening to podcasts, etc.,” he adds.

Auffenberg is not alone out of the small sample of people the paper interviewed. Rinaldo Ferlin, a project manager who is originally from Brazil, has been taking French with Alliance Francaise since March for the same immigration purpose. He is at an intermediate level now and plans to continue on regardless of the immigration test. “I would like to be fluent in French. I have friends in France and I would like to go there and speak [French] like I speak English. That is my goal,” Ferlin says.

Students of the French language at the Alliance Française. | Photo courtesy of L’Alliance Française de Vancouver

A number of students in his class started French from scratch in March and are dedicated to further advancing their levels.

Gina Hernandez, a fellow student who is originally from Mexico, is taking on French as her fourth language for both professional and personal purposes.

“I love to travel and I work in the music industry. I am a music distribution coordinator and a marketing assistant for the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra. When you work in the music industry, for you to be able to open markets in Canada such as Quebec or Nova Scotia, you need to know another language, especially French,” she says.

Phil Chen, another student from the same March cohort, whose first language is Mandarin, is taking on the French challenge after he mastered English.

“I have been to France and I like the culture. When I was learning English I remember how much I enjoyed it, so I am hoping to repeat the experience,” he says.

Rising demand for French classes

The Alliance Française, the largest French-language school and one of the oldest non-profit organizations in Vancouver, is also planning for an expansion to accommodate the rising demand for French classes in Vancouver. The expanded campus, slated to open in 2021/2022, is expected to double the size of the current one with 11 classrooms. The school already has one of the largest French libraries in British Columbia.

According to Eloise Loriot, event coordinator at the school, student enrolment has been increasing 35 percent per year in the last five years.

“Per year we welcome 2,500 students. More than half are kids or teenagers. We have a lot of students who are returning students so we see about 4,300 class subscriptions a year. Corporate and public services classes also represent 10 to 15 percent of our total activities,” she says.

The school is celebrating its 115th anniversary this year. According to Loriot’s research of school data, it is estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 students have gone through their programs over the school’s centennial history.

Government data tells the same story. Based on data from the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, French immersion enrolment has increased 30 percent in the decade leading to 2016. Nearly 6,000 students are enrolled in French language schools between 2016 to 2017, a 25 percent increase over the previous 5 years. One third of public school students are enrolled in core French in the academic year of 2016 to 2017.

Achieving some level of French, one of the two official languages of Canada, is mandatory in grade schools in some Canadian provinces, but not in British Columbia.

It is estimated that around 7 percent of British Columbia’s population are bilingual in English and French; however, the Francophone community does seem to be growing over the years. Based on the above government data, in the decade to 2016 there was an increase of 21 percent of people who speak French most often at home.

With growing interest in French language learning, it looks like there will be many more French speakers in the years to come.

Where can you learn French in Vancouver

  • L’Alliance Française
  • Berlitz Learning Centre
  • Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver
  • Le Collège Éducacentre
  • International House
  • Langara College
  • Learn French Vancouver
  • Little Sorbonne French Language School
  • UBC Extended Learning
  • Vancouver Community College
  • Vancouver Community Centres