Students spend summer exploring language and culture across Canada, free of pandemic's shadow
Nearly 5,000 students studying English and French in travel immersion programs this summer
Shortly after arriving in the small town of Trois-Pistoles, Que., for a French-immersion program, Carolyn Moore called her mom.
"I'm in a level that's way too advanced for me. Everyone is way better. I'm completely out of my depth," she recalled saying.
Now, after winning the program's award for extraordinary progress, she's sticking around Trois-Pistoles for the summer, to work at a cider brewing co-op.
"The people here, they're so generous and patient," she said. "It's been a wonderful experience."
Moore has just completed the Explore Program, a language exchange offered in all 10 provinces. Students travel to another part of the country for a five-week immersion course in either English or French.
Programs like Explore faced challenges during the pandemic amid restrictions against travel and large gatherings. Some institutions have since stopped offering the program entirely, citing rising costs and difficulties finding host families. Most Explore programs have managed to come back, however, and students and teachers say the lessons learned this summer go beyond language.
Founded in 1971, the federally funded Explore programs offer, via post-secondary schools, students a bursary which covers the cost of tuition (less a deposit of around $300), food and lodging during their stay. Students live either with a host family or in residence.
Making a comeback
"During the pandemic years… what we had to actually do was against everything that we normally do," said Kathy Asari, co-ordinator of the Trois-Pistoles program
"We have a lot of excursions and outings, a lot of things that were meant to give the participants the opportunity to make new friends, to mix with the local population, to go visit different places," she said.
"That, of course, is completely opposite of what all the health regulations were."
Explore programs were cancelled across the board in 2020 and, with a few exceptions, held online in 2021. Most institutions returned to in-person formats in 2022, although pandemic-related concerns still played a role.
"Last year didn't quite feel like it was at that same stage. There was still a hesitation," said Jas Gill, director of the University of British Columbia's Explore program. "But this year, right from the beginning, we had just so much interest."
Camille Hains is attending UBC's Explore program to work on her English. She's on summer break from an accounting program at the University of Quebec in Lévis.
Hains says her high school English classes were very focused on reading and writing. She says the Explore program is much more focused on speaking.
"Everybody around me speaks English. And I have to express myself in English if I want to be understood," she said.
It's the first time Hains has been this far from home for so long. She says the experience has been valuable.
"I learned that I am mentally stronger than I thought," she said.
Patrick Nzudom is also studying English through UBC's Explore program this year. Both of his parents attended the program when they were younger — his mom was in Winnipeg and his dad was in Toronto — after immigrating from Cameroon.
In 2021, Nzudom attended Calgary's Explore program; one of only five in-person sessions offered that year.
"Even though it was the pandemic, I really liked the opportunity, because staying for one year at home and just not being able to go out, having a curfew and all those restrictions, it was really difficult," he said.
In 2019, there were more than 5,600 students enrolled in 69 Explore sessions across the country, according to the inter-governmental Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), which co-ordinates the Official Languages Programs, including Explore.
This year, CMEC says there are around 4,800 students attending 58 sessions, including five online sessions, a delivery format that emerged during the pandemic.
In a statement, a representative from CMEC said that some institutions were forced to stop offering Explore because of the pandemic.
"Five post-secondary institutions are no longer offering the Explore program. Reasons include rising costs (e.g., food, residence/accommodation, activities), hiring challenges to staff the program, and/or loss of homestay families to house Explore participants."
'Living the language'
Language is "a tool that you use for real social purpose," said Sunny Man Chu Lau, the Canada Research Chair in Integrated Plurilingual Teaching and Learning.
"I think that a lot of classrooms tend to just focus on marks and exams and accuracy and forget the real purpose of language," she said. "When there is real interest, when there is real use, the accuracy will come."
Lau says travel language immersion programs like Explore provide students an opportunity to see how their target language is used in the real world, and to immediately bring that knowledge back to the classroom.
Alice La Flèche has been teaching both English and French in a variety of settings for 20 years. She's working at the University of Quebec in Montreal's Explore program in French this summer.
"It's like living the language," she said.
"You learn the structure, you learn, you learn the formulas to put it together, and then you live it. and you live the music. You live the food. You live the emotion."
La Flèche has been introducing students to French-Canadian cinema and music, and the work of Quebec authors including Joséphine Bacon and Kim Thủy.
Going from southern Ontario to Trois-Pistoles, Moore says she felt the cultural change on a number of fronts.
"I feel like I've learned a lot about appreciating something that isn't Toronto, I guess you could say," she joked.
"The music is different, food is different, the way of life," she said. "Things move a little bit more slowly, but more enjoyable I would say…I really love Trois-Pistoles."