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CBC news: Summer of Language and Culture Exploration Across Canada for Students, Away from Pandemic’s Influence


Shortly after arriving in the small town of Trois-Pistoles, Que., for a French immersion program, Carolyn Moore called her mother.

“I’m at a level that’s way too far for me. Everyone’s much better. I’m completely out of my depth,” she recalls saying.

Now, after winning the program’s award for extraordinary progress, she’s sticking around at Trois-Pistoles this summer to work at a cider-brewing cooperative.

“The people here are so generous and patient,” she said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Moore just completed the Explore program, a language exchange offered in all 10 counties. Students travel to another part of the country for a five-week immersion course in English or French.

Programs like Explore faced challenges during the pandemic amid travel restrictions and large gatherings. Some institutions have since stopped offering the program altogether, citing rising costs and difficulty finding host families. However, most Explore programs have managed to bounce back, and students and teachers say the lessons learned this summer extend beyond language.

Established in 1971, the publicly funded Explore Programs provide students through post-secondary schools with a scholarship that covers the cost of tuition (minus a deposit of about $300), food, and lodging during their stay. Students live with a host family or in residence.

Make a comeback

“During the pandemic years… what we actually had to do went against everything we normally do,” said Kathy Asari, Trois-Pistoles Program Coordinator

“We have a lot of excursions and trips, a lot of things that were designed to give the participants a chance to make new friends, to mingle with the locals, to visit different places,” she said.

“Of course that’s the complete opposite of what all health regulations were.”

Explore programs were canceled across the board in 2020 and, with few exceptions, held online in 2021. Most settings reverted to in-person formats in 2022, though concerns about the pandemic still lingered.

“Last year it didn’t quite feel like it was at the same stage. There was still a hesitation,” said Jas Gill, director of the University of British Columbia’s Explore program. “But this year, from the beginning, we had so much interest.”

Students at the Spring 2023 Session of the Explore Program in Trois-Pistoles, Que. (Trois-Pistoles Explore Program)

Camille Hains goes to UBC’s Explore program to work on her English. She has summer vacation 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.

“Everyone around me speaks English. And I have to express myself in English if I want to be understood,” she said.

It is the first time that Hains has been so far from home for so long. She says the experience has been valuable.

“I’ve learned that I’m mentally stronger than I thought,” she said.

Patrick Nzudom is also studying English this year through UBC’s Explore program. Both his parents attended the program when they were younger – his mother was in Winnipeg and his father in Toronto – after they emigrated from Cameroon.

A monthly schedule pinned to a billboard
The extracurricular activities program of this spring’s Explore program in Trois-Pistoles. (Submitted by Carolyn Moore)

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 home for a year and just not being able to go out, having a curfew and all these restrictions, it was really hard,” he said.

Pandemic consequences

In 2019, there were more than 5,600 students participating in 69 Explore sessions across the country, according to the intergovernmental Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), which coordinates official language programs, including Explore.

CMEC says there are about 4,800 students attending 58 sessions this year, including five online sessions, a form of delivery that emerged during the pandemic.

In a statement, a CMEC representative said some institutions were forced to stop offering Explore due to the pandemic.

“Five post-secondary institutions no longer offer the Explore program. Reasons include rising costs (e.g., food, lodging/accommodation, activities), challenges in hiring staff for the program, and/or loss of host families to Explore participants.”

A woman stands in front of a mountain view complete with chair lift.
Camille Hains, a native of Lévis, Que., says she had never really traveled before heading to Vancouver this month on the Explore program to work on her English. (Submitted by Camille Hains)

‘Living the language’

Language is “a tool that you use for real social purposes,” says Sunny Man Chu Lau, the Canada Research Chair in Integrated Multilingual Teaching and Learning.

“I think a lot of classrooms tend to just focus on grades and exams and accuracy and forget about the real purpose of language,” she said. “If there’s real interest, if there’s real utility, the accuracy will come.”

Lau says travel immersion programs like Explore give students the chance 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 is working this summer at the University of Quebec in Montreal’s Explore program in French.

“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 introduced students to French Canadian film and music, as well as the work of Quebec authors, including Joséphine Bacon and Kim Thủy.

Moving 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’s not Toronto, you could say,” she joked.

“The music is different, the food is different, the way of life,” she said. “Things are a little slower, but more fun I’d say… I really like Trois-Pistoles.”

A group of college students gather around picnic tables to watch a presenter in an urban agricultural setting.
In addition to studying in the classroom, Explore students also learn about the communities where they reside. (Trois-Pistoles Explore Program)
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