'We're investing in these kids': French program helps kids, parents learn second language

At home, Natalie Doiron tries to speak French with her two boys, but as an English-speaking parent, it's not easy.

"We're trying to be a lot more French at home," said Doiron, whose husband is francophone. 

To help, the couple enrolled sons Liam, 3, and Asher, 1, in Francobulles, a new program offered in Saint John and Quispamsis that's designed to help families with non-francophone parents learn the language alongside their children.

The French-immersion play groups take place Tuesday at École Samuel-De Champlain in Saint John and Thursday at L'école des Pionniers in Quispamsis. Just over 20 kids are enrolled in the programs, which started  in the area in January. 

The program is already offered in both Fredericton and Moncton through the Francophone South School District.

Students as young as six months and as old as five are learning to speak the language by playing games and through social interaction.

"This is kind of nice because it kind of makes us hone in on everything," Doiron said.

She said she believes it's important to know both official languages.

"It's huge for me because it's kind of hard to learn sometimes when you're older," she said. "I'm learning along with them at the same time."  

When she's not practising herself, Doiron also teaches her boys at home, by reading books, repeating basic words and singing French songs.

"Once the boys are in school doing it, I guess I get thrown in the mix too," Doiron said.

Christine Gee-Drisdelle, an educator with Francobulles, spends her days creating crafts from paper plates, customizing language games and reading French books to help children learn the language.

Each week, activities are centred on a theme, such as holidays, treasure hunts, nutrition. When parents and children don't understand, she acts out what she's trying to say. 

"I have to do a lot of sign language, but it's a learning process," she said. 

Getting services younger

Gee-Drisdelle grew up with an anglophone mom and francophone dad, who had to work a lot.

"For her to help with homework, it wasn't something that she could do," said Gee-Drisdelle, whose first language is French. "It was a struggle." 

Even today in the Saint John area, she said, there are not a lot of resources in French for the francophone community.

She feels this is a hindrance, especially in the school system, where some children might need extra attention.

"It's hard to have a francophone in everything," she said. "I feel the kids should be getting the services younger, not wait [until] the school system."

Despite difficulties getting French resources, she said, it's still important to know both official languages.

"We're investing in these kids. We're giving them a head start."  

'The gift of French'

She described the program as "teaching in a way that's not forced."

"The kids are playing and learning at the same time so they don't have to feel the pressure of 'speaking French,'" she said. "I'm slowly slipping it into their mind."

Gee-Drisdell said she also sees families from Syria and parts of Africa enrolled in the program. She's hopeful the program will expand and be able to run again next year to help the youth and their parents speak French.

"We need to make everybody feel included," she said.