I was interviewed by Steve Norman for a Burlington cable TV channel. The City Council of Burlington, VT is promoting French friendliness towards its visitors, and a French dual language program is being considered for one of the local elementary schools. I spoke about my background in bilingual education, presented a few examples of dual language programs in Utah, Massachusetts, and New York, and talked about the Bilingual Revolution -both the movement and the book that I am currently writing. I also discussed various options to consider when implementing a French dual language program.
I have visited Burlington dozens of times over the last 20 years, and have always enjoyed the city’s cultural vibrancy. Burlington’s French cultural heritage speaks for itself. French-speaking traders, farmers and workers have lived in the Burlington region from the earliest times of European settlement through the present, and, with their descendants, have comprised an important component of the population, whose cultural and linguistic heritage continues to be worthy of preservation and celebration. Moreover, Burlington is a tourism and commercial center that derives substantial revenue from visitors to the city who come here to shop and to enjoy the city’s natural and built amenities. The Burlington International Airport serves a diverse clientele, thirty percent of whom live in Quebec.
Five years ago, the City Council unanimously adopted a resolution that seeks to “enhance accommodation of francophone natives and visitors to the region for the benefit and enrichment of the regional culture, economy, and opportunity on both sides of the international border.” Private businesses, especially retail and hospitality-related businesses, are encouraged to make their signage, maps, menus and other materials bilingual. These businesses are also encouraged to “affirmatively hire employees with French language skills, and to encourage and support existing employees to acquire and enhance such skills.” For instance, recent efforts by the Church Street Marketplace and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce to promote French friendliness through “Bienvenue Quebecois” (Quebecers Welcome) placards, and free French-language classes for their members and employers, and the seasonal Church Street “French Welcome Tent,” are efforts which have been enthusiastically acknowledged by visitors from Quebec and by media outlets in Montreal. The Parks and Recreation Department has hired hired seven bilingual summer employees at the marina this summer. That is half of its summer workforce. The public campground had fewer French speakers in comparison, but their office (and main point of contact with customers) was bilingual this summer.
Finally, the City Council resolution encourages Burlington Public Schools to ensure that all area youth acquire basic familiarity with the French language, and with the history and culture of francophone societies around the world, especially as related to the Burlington region. Regional school systems and institutions of higher learning are also encouraged to “expand and enhance their opportunities for adults to learn French and to appreciate our regional francophone culture and history.”
Burlington has five elementary schools, which used to be neighborhood schools. Several years ago there was concern because two of them, which served primarily low-income neighborhoods, were not performing academically as well as the others. After much public process, these schools were transformed into ‘magnet’ schools with a curriculum focused, in one case, on the arts, and in the other, on environmental and sustainability studies. Busses now bring students around town to the various schools, and the concentration of poor students has been alleviated. The program has been well received, and now there are ambitions for new ‘magnet’ programs in the other schools, of which a French dual language program could certainly be one.
The city council’s interest, along with the increased interest among local businesses, are signs that Burlington is moving in the direction of a new model that mixes economic development with cultural heritage development. It is also good news that the Burlington School District’s new Superintendent, Yaw Obeng, has worked previously in bilingual school systems in New Brunswick and Ontario. He is bilingual and very accustomed to bilingualism and bilingual education. In my opinion, a French dual language program would greatly serve the city’s economic, educational, and cultural interests.