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Easy, affordable and even free ways to learn French in Quebec

Contrary to the Quebec government mantra that immigrants are “anglicizing” the province, most newcomers want to learn French ASAP. But how to get started is not always obvious.

While the Quebec government likes to lament that many newcomers to the province have no desire to speak French and are busy “anglicizing” the province, in my own experience most people who come here — either as out-of-province or international students, or those who move to Quebec in a more permanent fashion — usually express both a desire and a willingness to learn at least some basic French as quickly as possible. Most people know only too well that speaking the province’s majority language will help improve their work prospects and enhance their social integration, not to mention make their time here much more pleasant and easier to navigate. 

One of the main issues I see newcomers to Quebec complain about, however, is the sheer difficulty in even finding classes to learn French and the incredibly long delays involved. Even though the CAQ government has insisted on the importance of francizing immigrants and students, it hasn’t been as quick to provide the necessary resources for them. Since its creation last year, Francisation Québec has struggled to keep up with growing interest. A recent report by French Language Commissioner Benoît Dubreuil revealed there were severe bottlenecks in providing these services and the government appears not to have planned or budgeted for the increased demand.

Long wait for free MIFI classes

As a general rule, the Quebec government offers free French courses (full time, part time and online) to all persons 16 years of age and older who live in Quebec and didn’t attend French school. These courses may also be eligible for financial assistance under certain conditions. 

However, with MIFI (Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Francisation et de l’Intégration) overwhelmed by demand, and the government insisting newcomers can only receive government services exclusively in French six months after their arrival, I thought it would be far more helpful to be en mode solutions (as we say in good Québécois French) and help out those interested in learning (or improving) their French, as opposed to just scapegoating those who don’t speak it yet.

Montreal universities offer some interesting options

Here are a few ways one can immediately start working on their French while waiting to hear back from MIFI. Some require a bit of money, but for others, all you may need is a smartphone or access to a public library. 

If money is no object, there are many options available, starting with private French classes. Both McGill and Concordia universities offer 10- and 13-week French language programs at reasonable rates, with the former also offering the McGill Quebec Studies Summer Institute, a five-week-long program combining French language instruction and Quebec history, including themes such as the Quiet Revolution, Quebec cinema and Religion and identity. 

If a playful approach is more your speed, Concordia also offers Astronautes FLS (Français Langue Seconde), a French learning game you can play with your friends and classmates using phones or tablets. Your team of two to four players is working together to fly a spaceship. To survive, you must follow the instructions and press the right buttons on your control panel on your phone. The catch? You need to do it in French. The game is free, but you need a smartphone, and if you’re playing it with your friends you need to be on the same wifi network. 

Say YES to cheap French courses

Yes Employment + Entrepreneurship is a non-profit, community-driven English-language service provider that has been helping Quebecers find employment and develop as entrepreneurs since 1995. They offer French for the Workplace, a comprehensive, five-week virtual French program that can help you with essential French language skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students actively participate in a variety of exercises, receiving personalized feedback from both the instructor and their peers. While not free, at $98 for the High Beginner sessions and at $115 for their Intermediate sessions (plus a $5 administrative fee), these courses are certainly quite affordable. 

Mauril allows you your own pace

Have you heard of Mauril? Mauril is a free app that can help you take your French or English language skills to the next level by testing your listening comprehension skills with audio and video content from CBC and Radio-Canada. You can download the app on Apple and Android phones and tablets or use the website version. With a wide variety of fiction, comedy shows, documentaries, news and current affairs all connected to your everyday Quebec reality, you can learn at your pace while also familiarizing yourself with the place you now call home. 

Pairing up linguistically

Quebec election undecided voters learn french
Easy, affordable and even free ways to learn French in Quebec. Photo by arcpixel

The Fondation pour la langue francaise and their Deux par Deux program was created in 1988 thanks to a substantial donation from a French businessman who wanted to help promote the French language in and outside of Quebec.  

During the pandemic, people wanting to learn French had little or no opportunity to practise their French in Quebec, so the foundation decided to pair students with volunteers so that they could exchange in French, in a more casual conversational environment where they were free to talk about anything they considered of interest. The objective of these linguistic pairings was to ensure students didn’t lose what skills they had already acquired. Students and teachers essentially communicate via WhatsApp, Zoom, Messenger or phone. Some even meet for a walk or a coffee. The organization is always looking for more volunteers if you’re interested in helping out. 

BANQ to the rescue

I love libraries because I’m a bookworm. But libraries offer far more than books. How many of you know that the the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (commonly known as BAnQ) has an extensive online bank of resources to help you learn French? The library is free to join for all Montreal residents, and once you’re a member, you can access tons of helpful educational tools. 

BANQ has an online bank of resources to help learners improve their spoken and written comprehension, work on their pronunciation, expand their vocabulary and practise for French tests. As a bonus, subscribers can also access the language lab for free to really immerse themselves in French. The library’s language laboratory features six workstations and is equipped with well-known language programs like Mango Languages and Rosetta Stone.

Social media can also help improve your French

Social media gets blamed for a lot these days, but people forget that it can also be a wonderful source of information and inspiration. Free language apps like Duolingo can help you practise a language, but get tedious in the long run. Here are some Instagram accounts I follow that help me improve my language skills.

Two of my favourite Instagram accounts are Spoken.Canadian.French and Quebec.French.Pronunciation with Nicolas Dion, who takes the time to break down simple French phrases and expressions, starting from book French (pronounced and written) to spoken Québécois French, which is the way most Quebecers speak.

Nico patiently deconstructs Québécois French for his audience and explains the difference between formal spoken French and more colloquial expressions. He allows his followers the time to practise and sometimes guess what a word or phrase sounds like or how it’s best said before he reveals the answer himself. I often find myself testing my knowledge of Québécois French by listening (and comparing) his expressions and always feel a sense of accomplishment when I get them right. If you needed any proof that people in Quebec are motivated to learn the language, his comments are always full of grateful folks thanking him for helping them navigate Québécois French, which can be quite confusing to those unfamiliar with it.

French with Frederic with Frederic Patenaude is also a good Instagram account to follow for intermediate French, although it’s a tad more serious.

There are many different, outside-of-the-box ways to practise your French. Any opportunity to add to your vocabulary, practise your pronunciation and become less self-conscious when speaking the language in everyday scenarios is always a good thing. 

As tiresome as Quebec’s language politics can be sometimes, the undisputed truth is that acquiring French is not only vital for enhanced daily communication and better job prospects, but it’s also the best way to really feel a part of this place and take full advantage of everything it has to offer. Besides, acquiring a new language is never a losing proposition. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.