Paired with university students, Montreal merchants learn French on the job

Jun Huang had a hard time learning French until he was part of a pilot project that brings together merchants like Huang and Université de Montréal students.

Government-funded program allows small business owners to improve language skills at work

Jun Huang's French has improved tremendously thanks to a pilot project that paired up small business owners with university students who teach them the language. (Sean Henry/CBC)

When tailor Jun Huang first opened his business in Montreal two years ago, he had a hard time communicating with his customers.

"My French was no good," said Huang, who speaks Mandarin and English. "I only knew how to say hello."

While all the signs at Nettoyeur Mauran in the Côte-des-Neiges Plaza are in French and more than half of the clients he serves are francophone, Huang struggled to grasp the language.

It was only when he started participating in a program where university students are paid to teach small business owners French that he started learning.

"The teacher always taught me how to talk to the customer in French about the t-shirt, about the alterations or about the tailoring," he said. "They taught me a lot of the vocabulary like that."
The pilot project has now expanded to three different Montreal boroughs. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The program, funded by the provincial government and the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, pairs together merchants like Huang and Université de Montréal students who teach them French with vocabulary specific to their business.

It aims to bring French language lessons straight to the owners at their workplace because they may not be able to take classes otherwise.

"The idea is that people working in those small stores don't have the time necessarily to learn French in the evening, or to close their store during the day, so the signal here is French will come to you," said Michel Leblanc, the president of the Chamber of Commerce.

What started as a pilot project for 30 business owners in the Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough has now expanded thanks to an added boost of $500,000 from the province.

The program will now help merchants in Ville Saint-Laurent and Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension.

Under the program, about 20 students will be hired to help 160 merchants learn French over the next few months.

Providing better service

Huang says the on-site lessons have given him the confidence to speak to his customers. His clientele is 60 per cent French.

"That's why I have to learn French and give good service and the customers are very happy," he said. "Most Chinese people only speak English, but now I'm learning French and I think it's better."
Merchants can also use this sign to encourage customers to speak French with them. (Sean Henry/CBC)

The courses have also pushed him to sign up for more lessons in the future. Huang starts more advanced classes next Friday.

"I think it can help me and a lot of persons learn French and it's better for the business, for the family or for life," he said.

With files from CBC's Sean Henry and la Presse Canadienne