Learning languages, opening doors

Furthering bilingualism for families has been a mission for local grassroots organization Canadian Parents for French since 1977

Ottawa residents Jenny Dao and Paul D’Angelo are pursuing French language education for their children, Logan and Lauren D’Angelo. Photo Credit Oya Anzan


When Ottawa resident Jenny Dao was choosing a school for her two children, she wanted to ensure that there was a strong French influence. “Even before they started at the Ottawa Children Montessori Centre with their strong French programs, our son and daughter attended 123 Petit Pas where learning French was integrated with music,” says Dao, the mother of Logan and Lauren.

Solid French learning is why Logan will now start at Turnbull School in September 2024.  Dao says her son recently spent the day at Turnbull and was thrilled that he learned some new phrases in French. She’ll also consider schools with strong French programs when selecting a school for her daughter—including Turnbull, Joan of Arc and others. “We speak English at home,” says Dao. “But I really want that exposure for them during the day. It will really help them be comfortable with the language and will be invaluable for them in later years.”

More families are putting a premium on having their children learn French. The population is changing, says Nicole Thibault, executive director of Canadian Parents for French.

“With increased immigration, new Canadians are expecting their children to not only learn English but French as well,” Thibault says. “We’re ending up with children with three languages, which I think Canadians are now seeing is more the norm. It certainly is more the global norm. And just think of how many more doors you can open with another language, or two.”

Nicole Thibault. Photo Courtesy Nicole Thibault

A national network, Canadian Parents for French is dedicated to promoting French across the country. Started in 1977 by Keith Spicer and a small group of parents in Ottawa who wanted to ensure their children had the opportunity to become bilingual, the organization now works with 10 staff-led branches and offices supporting 100 volunteer chapters and teams across the country. “It’s all about access and advocacy,” says Thibault, “and it’s so important to be community based. We’re there to support parents with expertise and tools so they can participate in their child’s learning of the language.”

Thibault says that schools do a good job in teaching the French language, but Canadian Parents for French can help continue the use of language outside the classroom. “We use cultural events, theatre and music to show students how alive French is in their community,” says Thibault, “and how they can participate and have fun while they learn.”

Ruhi Kalia’s third language is French, after Punjabi and English. “My parents didn’t speak French when I started school,” says Kalia. “But they really understood the importance of learning French. So, when I started kindergarten in core French, my parents got me a tutor to help me advance in the language.” Kalia even continued working with a private tutor all through high school. “I really developed a passion for the language, and when I did my Bachelor of Arts, I majored in French.” In 2021, Kalia started working with Canadian Parents for French, first as a tutoring program assistant and then as the program coordinator in the Ottawa office.

Ruhi Kalia. Photo Courtesy Ruhi Kalia

She’s now studying to be a French teacher at the University of Ottawa. “When I worked for CPF, I got to see not only how many students they reach, but how engaged the teams are and how much support there is available for parents right across the country,” she says.

Parents can join and take classes so they can learn alongside their children. And Kalia says the cultural events—such as a magic show in French, a movie night and cooking lessons—is “what makes a language come alive.”

Like Kalia’s parents, Dao’s parents also understood the value of learning French and always kept her in immersion classes. In Grade 7, Dao had the option of leaving immersion, but chose to stick with it. “I’m glad I did,” she says. “French just comes naturally for me now and because my job takes me across the country, it’s really useful. And I can easily carry on conversations with my children in both English and French. That reinforces the benefits for them too.”

Jody Rantala, French teacher at Turnbull School understands the importance of learning a language, but she knows how to make it fun too. She invited Ottawa-based Franco-Ontarian rapper Le Flo Franco—winner of the international French-language music competition Manie Musicale—to perform at the school. “I knew it was something my students would enjoy,” says Rantala. “I think it opened my students’ eyes to how many opportunities there are, not just in learning to speak a language, but other advantages as well, like culture and travel. I think parents’ eyes were opened too.”