Pandemic and Language Resilience in a Francophone Minority Context
From an ecological perspective inspired by Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human development, resilience can be defined as a process initiated by systems when they find themselves in the face of adversity (Ungar, 2018). This article examines the resilience of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on language resilience in a francophone minority context.
According to Ungar’s model (2018), each human being is a system in and of itself, while also being a constituent of other systems. A student is therefore a system interacting with others – their school, their community(ies), family, etc. It is by interacting with these systems that students construct themselves, build their sense of the world and participate in (re)producing other systems.
Resilience is a process that aims to return the individual system1 to wellness or well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed entire nations in a context of health adversity. We have seen how they have been able to mobilize various internal resources (financial means, knowledge, attitudes, capacities) and external resources (vaccines, knowledge, allies) within a network of international systems.
In the midst of this upheaval, families, parents, children, students, teachers and school administrators mobilized internal and external resources in a process of resilience that began with school closures and the creation of an “ad hoc” virtual school space. We have therefore been able to confirm the extent to which the school is not only a place of learning but also, in terms of supervising children, a concomitant system of family and social systems. Moreover, the role of schools in reducing social inequalities has been confirmed when family systems have taken on more responsibility for the schooling of children. On the one hand, for example, we saw the lower availability of Internet and computer equipment in low-income households or in those located far from the country’s urban centres. On the other hand, families with the necessary internal resources created “school cells” and hired a qualified teacher to ensure their children’s continued schooling, while the school system struggled to meet its teacher staffing needs and other children were doing minimal hours of virtual schooling, with or without adult supervision or support at home. This is reminiscent of the creation of playgroups by some parents to ensure the availability of a French-language space for their preschoolers in an Anglo-dominated setting, as well as the trend noted in research on school choice: only some families actively choose their children’s school. Thus, the mobilization of internal and external resources by a system, in this case a family system, depends largely on the availability, accessibility and relevance of such resources.
In a francophone minority context, it is also important to take into account accessibility to the French language during the pandemic and afterwards. We already know that in the most Anglo-dominated francophone and Acadian communities, the school is the only public space where the French language enjoys a higher official status than English, although the latter enjoys a very high social status in student interactions. This is the case, for example, in Halifax (Liboy and Patouma, 2021), Toronto (Heller, 1994; Heller, 2006) and Ontario more generally (Gérin-Lajoie, 2004), Manitoba (Cormier, 2020) and Vancouver (Levasseur, 2020). The introduction of the Civic Community School concept developed by FNCSF (Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones) in 2011 and the identification of the sociolinguistic role of the education system as a major issue by AEFO (Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens) in 2022 confirmed the centrality of the school for community language resilience in an Anglo-dominated context. Within the school, students find spaces for social interaction that are conducive to contextualized language production and reproduction. The closure of schools and community centres therefore placed young people in a context of language adversity.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents (Vaillancourt et al., 2021), particularly because of the social isolation that has significantly reduced peer contact. Even when health measures have been relaxed to allow social distancing, young people in a minority setting may have encountered difficulties in getting together with their francophone friends if these friends were scattered over an area beyond the limits of their neighbourhood. Indeed, although some historical francophone or Acadian communities occupy a well-defined geographic space (the Brayon population of the City of Edmundston, the Acadian population of Pubnico or the Franco-Ontarian population of Hearst, for example), their lives are for the most part intertwined in a municipality with the lives of an English-speaking majority, thus diminishing the opportunities to communicate in French. Under such conditions, a decision becomes necessary with respect to mobilizing internal and external resources that can support language resilience in French.
Data was collected in various provinces: in Ontario and Prince Edward Island in conjunction with communications sent to various groups in the school system; in New Brunswick in connection with the research component of the Canadian Playful Schools Network; and in Nova Scotia as part of a Master’s thesis. The data shows that the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on the availability and accessibility of external and internal resources relevant to the language resilience of some young French speakers. In our conversations with teachers and parents in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, we heard that some children’s ability and motivation to speak French decreased during the pandemic. Teachers in some elementary school settings noted that a greater number of students who did not attend daycare because of the pandemic entered school with little or no knowledge of the French language. Teachers at one school were interviewed at the annual ACELF conference and estimated that 70 percent of students did not speak French when they arrived at school in September 2022.
Secondary school students had the habit of switching from English to French when in the vicinity of a teacher in the school hallways; after two years of interrupted copresence, however, this automatic reflex seems to have generally disappeared when students returned to the classroom. Teachers have reported that some students simply refuse to speak French in the classroom, even with staff. A Master’s study of three secondary school students in Nova Scotia informs us about the factors that may have contributed to such changes and describes how in-person school acts as a concurrent system supporting students’ language resilience process (Sutherland, 2022).
Three secondary school seniors from schools across Nova Scotia participated in individual online narrative conversations during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite distinct sociolinguistic profiles, each one testified to the importance of school for their language resilience (Sutherland, 2022). The in-school resources which they mobilized were (1) access to academic French in French courses, (2) legitimization of the local variety of French (Acadjonne) by certain staff members and (3) extracurricular activities. The French language school thus provides these students with three spaces in which various language resources and norms of communication in French can circulate: interaction in academic French, in Acadjonne and in the language of young people. Although Acadjonne was available to two of these students at home, with one of them speaking French closer to the academic standard with her parents, the pandemic greatly reduced their daily access to academic French and interactions with their peers in French.
When their schools were closed, students in French-language schools had access to a reduced number of classes. French classes were maintained, but accessibility to academic French was reduced as the trend shifted from participative education to lecture-style teaching. The individuals Sutherland met noted in particular the relevance of interaction in the French classroom to their access to academic language. Considering that, for two students, this linguistic variety was not legitimate within their family and community settings but was required for their legitimacy as francophones outside these environments, interactions in academic French proved to be a necessary resource for post-secondary language resilience for these students.
In addition, students testified to the importance of a French-language space, as their propensity to use the dominant language with their peers meant that, in the absence of school-organized extracurricular activities, they turned to social media to communicate with their friends. However, they used English mostly, if not exclusively, in the digital socialization space. For these individuals, the school closure during the pandemic entailed the loss of spaces of social interaction relevant to the production and contextualized language reproduction of the various forms of French.
However, unlike a growing number of young people living in a minority setting, those met by Sutherland had access to French-language resources in their families and in their respective communities. They were also among the young people who mobilized extracurricular school activities as a resource for their resilience in general and for their language resilience in particular. In Ontario, parents from a minority background but who use French at home and mobilize French language resources in their interactions with their children noted that their children spoke and read more frequently in French. This seems to have resulted in an improvement in their French vocabulary and a greater ability to move from a situation of translinguistic communication (i.e., the creative mobilization by bi-plurilingual persons of all their linguistic resources to create meaning and communicate a message) to a unilingual situation. Could it be that, by keeping their children away from a socialization space between young people where French is little used (the school hallways, for example), school closures contributed to these students’ linguistic resilience in French?
In a minority context, the surrounding society cannot ensure that students and their families will have sustained access to the language and linguistic resources distributed by the French-language school. Consequently, the French-language school offers great potential as an external resource for students’ language resilience. Under current conditions, it is not able to fully carry out this role in the context of a pandemic or e-learning. Moreover, some anecdotal data suggests that the French-language school contributes negatively to the language resilience of some students. Thus, there is still much to be learned about the interaction between the school and students’ other language ecology systems, and about the contribution of this interaction to short- and long-term language resilience.
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Liboy, M.-G., & Patouma, J. (2021). L’école francophone en milieu minoritaire est-elle apte à intégrer les élèves immigrants et réfugiés récemment arrivés au pays? Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 53(2), 23-40.
Sutherland, H. (2022). De l’insécurité linguistique à la résilience linguistique : le rôle de l’école de langue française dans la formation de la résilience linguistique des adolescents. [Master’s thesis, University of Ottawa]. ResearchuO. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/43860
Vaillancourt, T., Beauchamp, M., et al. (2021). Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB_EN.pdf
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First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 Gauvin-Lepage and Lefebvre (2010) focus their research on family resilience. In this context, internal resources belong to the family while external resources are located in the systems around them.