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Cultural Immersion

Suzanne Beaumont
Vincent Massey Collegiate, Winnipeg
Member of the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers


In our ever-changing society, it is very difficult to define a notion as ambiguous as culture. Yet culture plays a key role in the academic context and is integral to teaching. Schools must first provide quality education to help students grow as lifelong independent learners. Moreover, the notions of culture and community, not to mention language, are at the very heart of learning French as a second language and cannot be separated from this learning. It is also very difficult to separate language from culture, since language has a social value that reflects a people's values and practices. Schools, and therefore teachers, must provide students with learning opportunities that will foster their cultural development and help them build a personal and linguistic identity. The role of teachers in minority-language communities is to encourage immersion students to explore the cultural diversity of francophone life. If they don't, who will?

However, it is hard to be francophone when English is everywhere. Immersion students are surrounded by anglophone and American pop culture. They are bombarded from morning to night with cultural messages in their mother tongue. They listen to the radio in English. They watch movies in English. They eat out in English. In short, their social life takes place in English. It is therefore critical that French immersion teachers adapt to these circumstances and engage students in similar activities in French. Introducing students to the arts in French encourages them to see French as a social language and not just a language of instruction. But teachers must guard against turning this introduction to the arts into an academic experience. If students merely study francophone artists and culture academically, they will associate French with school, boredom and homework—English will always be linked to fun and entertainment. The dichotomy will be reinforced and the message very clear: we live in English and study in French. I believe it is crucial that students have the opportunity to have fun in French as well as to learn and work in this language.

Students need to see that being francophone is much more than speaking the French language—it is a way of thinking, living and acting. The francophone culture goes beyond simple folklore—it is a modern culture that is lived. Therefore, as a teacher, I support exposure to French not only in the art world, but also in the media and in everyday life. This year we visited the French-language media to show students that newspapers, television and radio exist in French. We also attend plays regularly at Cercle Molière and the Cinémental film festival. I think it is important to get students out of the classroom and to show them that French is on television, on the radio, in cartoons and in movies. Field trips play a key role in encouraging immersion students to live in French. We must show students that they can lead a "normal" life in French and help them build an active vocabulary they can use in real-life situations. Consequently, teachers must prepare students before field trips by organizing various activities to help them acquire the vocabulary they need to understand a movie or a play, form their opinions and react in French. What good is it to know a language if you can't use it fluently?

Immersion teachers must provide their students with an arts vocabulary so they can discuss and analyze the arts in their second language. Students can then critique a movie or a play in French just as they do in English. They transfer knowledge and skills from their mother tongue to their second language, and so their French becomes more useful and more valuable to them. In this way, French goes beyond the classroom and becomes a part of their daily lives. They draw connections between French and their experiences. They learn teenage slang in French. I just recently took my students to see À vos marques…party! at the Cinémental film festival. When we returned to class, one student said to me, "The movie was so good, I forgot that it was in French." I found that comment revealing at various levels. First, the student stopped translating from one language into another and actually thought in French. He laughed at the jokes and had fun in his second language. Through the arts, without realizing it, he had developed a social and emotional vocabulary in French. When the subject of a movie is relevant to them, students remember what they hear. Because they connect the events and the vocabulary used in the movie with their own lives, the new words become part of their everyday language. For example, for À vos marques…party!, we did a few exercises on language levels to get the students used to Quebec slang. They don’t know the colloquial expressions used by francophones, and yet that's what they are most interested in learning! During the movie, a popular girl commented on a boy's body, saying he had a "méchant beau corps." The following day, we discussed the meaning of the word méchant because the students had never heard it used that way. A month later, a student giving an oral presentation used "méchant" in a different context. All the students laughed, remembering the movie. So by going to the film festival, the student experienced seeing a movie—something he does every day in English—in his second language. And he liked it. I am therefore convinced that students need to be able to use French in contexts other than school. Otherwise, I don't think they will see any use for it in their predominantly anglophone environment.

Teachers therefore need to provide learning opportunities that tap into their students' emotions and allow them to talk about their real lives. Emotions are part of our personality and help us make value-based decisions. We also remember emotionally charged events. And humour, music and sports provide students with great opportunities to explore and experience francophone culture. We once brought in the comedy duos "Les 2" and "Deux gars qui s’essayent." All the immersion students attended the show. It was very clear from their laughter that they got the jokes and understood the nuances of the language. Again, humour had tapped into their emotions and they laughed in their second language!

As well, music in francophone culture plays a strategic role in getting young people used to French. It also hooks them emotionally. I think that listening to French songs in the classroom helps my students explore the diversity in song and the richness of francophone culture. But we must look beyond "studying" song, that is, beyond making it an academic experience. Teachers need to really know their students so they can introduce them to artists and types of music they like. To spark their interest, teachers must play French music that sounds like what young people listen to in English every day. For instance, my students love rap and hip hop, so we have listened to a lot of Kodiak and Corneille. They can appreciate good artists when they play music young people like. First, I provide my students with the vocabulary of the song so they can then react. The key here is to get them to critique a song by forming an opinion and backing it up with arguments. So we always listen to a song three times. The first time, the students just listen without the lyrics. We discuss their reactions and draw connections to what they know. The second time, they listen with the lyrics. After that, we discuss the lyrics. The third time, they just listen, with or without the lyrics. Then I decide whether we do an activity on the themes, the lexical fields or the message, or just simply listen. As a teacher, I must listen to my students. I must know how to pique their curiosity to open them up to French music. The students learn to appreciate that there is good music everywhere and that French lends itself to modern types like rock 'n' roll and rap.

In short, in minority-language situations, French is not always part of students' lives outside school. Every day, they are exposed to the dominant language and come under its influence. Therefore, the role of teachers in minority communities is to promote the active use of their students' second language by exposing them to French arts and culture. As a result, students develop a social and emotional vocabulary in French as well as analytical and critical thinking skills that will serve them in both languages. Consequently, teachers must provide students with learning opportunities that will foster their cultural development and help them build a personal and linguistic identity. Introducing immersion students to French film, theatre and music helps them develop an appreciation for culture and create cultural referents. Students who experience the arts don't just study their second language, they live it.