Forced to go online during pandemic, some new immigrants are quitting French lessons, group says

A Montreal-based organization that offers government-sanctioned French lessons to immigrants has moved online because of the pandemic, but the group's executive director says that's forcing some people to drop out of class.

Director of non-profit organization says 'French is crucial' to feel a sense of belonging in Quebec

Bienvenue à NDG executive director Luis Miguel Cristancho says many people are quitting online French lessons because of a lack of a computer or internet access. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

A Montreal-based organization that offers government-sanctioned French lessons to immigrants has moved online because of the pandemic, but the group's executive director says that's forcing some people to drop out of class.

Up to 20 per cent of students are quitting Bienvenue à NDG's online classes because they don't have a proper computer or internet access, according to Luis Miguel Cristancho.

"They need support," Cristancho said.

Learning French is essential for new immigrants, as it is the main way to communicate in Quebec, said Cristancho.

French lessons are just one of many services the organization offers new immigrants as it strives to help people adjust to life in the province, be it building social connections, finding work or learning how to navigate the health-care system.

But learning the local language is essential, said Cristancho.

"If they quit French, they're always going to have trouble to integrate," he said. "They are always going to struggle to understand Quebec society."

Quitting French affects adults and kids, director says

Ensuring people integrate into the community is his organization's mission, he said. He said it is not just adults who are struggling with language, because kids need classes too.

He said parents also help their children learn French and complete their work at school. Parents also need to be able to communicate with teachers, he explained, and those language barriers can be devastating.

"French is crucial," Cristancho said.

In-person classes at Bienvenue à NDG are on hold during the pandemic, but the organization's director says that's costing people the benefit of socialization and networking. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

Paulina Escutia is one of many who turned to Bienvenue à NDG for help after immigrating to the area. 

She came to Canada with her two children and has since enrolled them in French classes, but she said it is difficult for them to keep up.

"If one of my kids lost an explanation from the teacher, I need to try to explain," Escutia said.

Cristancho says the courses are also a way to make new connections and socialize as people adjust to their life in a new country, but much of that socialization is lost when classes are held online.

Immigration ministry says there are solutions

In a statement, the Immigration Ministry says immigrants studying French can receive an allowance of $188 per week if they take full-time classes.

Those taking classes part-time, can get $15 per day, the statement says.

As for those who need help obtaining computers, the ministry says they can contact partnering organizations for assistance getting the proper equipment and workstations are available in libraries when they are open.

"Many partner organizations loaned equipment to the students. Some partner organizations have referred students to resources that recycle and sell computers at very low prices," the ministry says.

In a follow-up email, Cristancho said Bienvenue à NDG has already lent 25 computers to families in need, but some households require more than one computer.

"We are already doing what they suggest as a solution, but sometimes it's not enough," he wrote. "Sometimes, families need to choose their expenses carefully when there is no income at home. They need to choose between diapers, formula, internet and laptops."

Based on a report by Chloë Ranaldi


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