Vermont and Québec have plenty in common: 90 miles of a peaceful border, a broad appreciation for maple syrup, artisanal cheeses and classy booze. And poutine and hockey. But, unlike our majority-francophone neighbors who often learn English, many Vermontais have a limited grasp of French.
"We're so close to Québec, it's a shame that more people don't speak French," says Nikki Matheson, a French teacher of French Canadian heritage. Yet for adult Vermonters who do want to learn the language, the options are limited. Near the border and outside of Chittenden County, few post-secondary French language classes can be found.
Many universities require their students to have studied a foreign language to be admitted, or to take a foreign language to graduate. Vermont state colleges do not, and three of the five schools currently offer no French classes. Unlike the University of Vermont, which offers extensive courses in French, Lyndon State College hasn't held a French class in four years; Johnson State College hasn't held one for more than two years. Neither is offering French this fall.
Community College of Vermont regularly offers one section of French at its Winooski location and will also hold the class in St. Albans, Rutland and Springfield this semester. Currently, none of the schools offers a French major or minor.
This does not paint a flattering picture of Vermont's cross-cultural student engagement — nor of the attitude Americans typically have about knowing any language other than English.
Janet Bennion is a professor of anthropology at LSC and chair of the department of criminal justice, history and global studies — the department in which French would ostensibly be offered. The fact that foreign languages and criminal justice are in the same department underscores the reality of limited budgets and class offerings at small state schools.
Bennion says that French has not been offered at LSC because of political differences within the department. At every faculty meeting, she says, she asks about French classes, to little avail.
"There has been some relatively tense discourse about what [languages] should be offered," Bennion says, noting that the school offers Russian but no other languages. But when she took a small survey of LSC students last spring, the majority of those interested in learning a foreign language preferred French or Spanish.
"We have not accommodated students who want to speak French. It's a crime; it's horrible; it's unethical," Bennion asserts. "I have done everything possible, and I was able to offer one class every other year."
In spring 2017, LSC will offer French I; taking it will fulfill students' general-education requirement of a "cultural awareness" class.
At Johnson State, it's not just budget issues but lack of student interest that fuels the absence of French classes, according to interim dean of academic affairs Sharon Twigg. The school did offer a French class in fall 2014 and spring 2015, but both were canceled due to low or no enrollment.
One likely cause is that, in 2014, language classes shifted from fulfilling a general education requirement to satisfying an elective requirement. Twigg says that change was intended to give students more flexibility in taking the classes they wanted. Nevertheless, she'd like to see foreign-language education fulfill a general education requirement again.
Former Johnson adjunct instructor Alysse Anton recalls those "let's see in August" days when classes would be offered and then canceled. She has also taught French at Lyndon but now does so through Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region in Burlington and Access CVU in Hinesburg.
Anton says that at Johnson she proposed a French-for-travelers class that she thought might interest students, but it wasn't approved. "New ideas are difficult to be moved along in general, and in a college education system," she says matter-of-factly.
Anton notes that nearby Montréal is the largest majority French-speaking city in the world after Paris, and that students do travel there or to other parts of Québec, incentivized in part by cheap beer (also, the legal drinking age in the province is 18). But it's not difficult to get around Montréal, or to buy a six-pack across the border, with little to no knowledge of French.
Twigg says that students are aware of the importance of learning another language, but "getting them to actually do the nitty-gritty of working on the language" is another story. She notes that enrollment is up at Johnson this year, and the proposed merger with Lyndon State could expand class offerings, including French.
Both colleges are set up to offer distance learning; Twigg posits that it might become possible for an instructor and some students to be on one campus, with students at the sister campus participating in a teleclass. "It works beautifully," Bennion says. "You can see the teacher and speak to her or him. We've got the technology for this. Anything's possible now."
What about adults who aren't attending college, or who can't afford the cost of a for-credit class? Again, outside of Chittenden County, French classes are limited. Alliance Française offers language and culture classes in Burlington and Colchester (and in Montpelier when enrollment is sufficient). Matheson has taught French in a variety of settings including for Alliance Française. But, in addition to the difficulty of finding a suitable class, she says, the time commitment can be challenging.
"You have to [practice a language] every single day and keep at it," Matheson says. "I do feel it's better to [take a class in person] than to do it online — if you take courses online, you don't get the interaction."
She says that AF does tailor classes to what students want — such as basics for those who plan to travel to francophone countries, or refresher courses for people who studied French years ago.
"Americans are not encouraged to learn languages," Matheson says. "But I can't tell you how many times people have told me, 'I wish I'd paid attention to French classes when I was young.'"
Alliance Française also maintains a tent in downtown Burlington to provide information to French-speaking tourists and has offered classes to downtown workers so they can be linguistically hospitable to visitors from Québec.
Access CVU in Hinesburg regularly offers a few 10- to 12-week language classes for as little as $140. But closer to the Canadian border, continuing education centers rarely, if ever, offer French.
Pauline Gage grew up in the U.S. with French Canadian parents and now works at the North Country Career Center in Newport. Last fall, she took NCCC's refresher 12-hour conversational French class, which she says made her think in French again. Though the center plans to offer the class again this fall, she laments the general lack of language education.
"It just seems ridiculous when you live on the border," Gage says.
Chris Damato, assistant director and adult education coordinator at Green Mountain Technology and Career Center in Hyde Park, says he would be willing to offer French if he knew of someone interested in teaching it, and if enough students signed up. Career centers generally offer classes that have a clear vocational or career application, Damato notes. Given the number of French-speaking tourists in Vermont, speaking their language would "absolutely be an asset for anyone who [works] a front desk at a business," he says.
But learning another language is about more than practical applications, such as at a job. It can also broaden one's horizons culturally. "When you know another language, you can connect with other perspectives; you can connect with people," Anton says. "You are not just passing by and discovering what they serve for food. You can communicate with the locals, heart to heart."
Disclosure: Author Molly Zapp has studied French with Nikki Matheson and Alysse Anton.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Où Est le Français?"