The QS 2017 Best Student Cities 2017 recently named Montreal the best city in the world for students. While this is certainly reason for McGill and its students to celebrate, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the university’s relationship with the predominantly French city that it is situated in. A key aspect of Montreal’s appeal to students from Canada and is its bilingual culture. It is in the interests of both the school and students to make this bilingualism part of the McGill experience and to work to better integrate the English and French sides of Montreal.
The administration has been recently making efforts to raise the profile of French on campus. Last March, the university launched a campaign to promote the “French side” of McGill. Other Canadian universities also work to incorporate French into their university experience: The University of Ottawa is bilingual, offering 90% of its courses in both French and English. Concordia, meanwhile, offers a university-facilitated French conversation program, which is specifically designed to foster French use in professional and social environments. These could serve as inspiration for future initiatives at McGill.
While Montreal clearly has much to offer students, keeping them here after graduation remains an issue—between 2000 and 2015, fewer international students stayed in Quebec than in any other province. Part of the challenge is the language barrier: The reality that many Montreal jobs require fluency in French discourages international students from working in the city after graduation. Time at the university doesn’t necessarily prepare students for a future in Montreal, as students at McGill can earn their undergraduate degree without ever needing to pick up French.
As Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier has argued, Montreal only stands to benefit by doing more to recruit and retain its international students. This is in McGill’s interest as well. If the university is committed to seeing its students succeed in the career field and locale of their choice, it should address the language stumbling block currently deterring many students from staying in Montreal.
McGill’s status as an English university in a French-speaking province presents a unique opportunity for students to experience both sides of Canadian bilingualism and potentially pick up a different language. Anglophone students who restrict themselves to the language that they came to McGill speaking deprive themselves of this opportunity. It is valuable that students can get by in English alone at McGill, since this allows monolingual students from English areas to succeed at the university. But this does mean that for many, meaningful immersion in the city’s bilingual culture is a largely untapped aspect of the Montreal—and by extension, McGill—experience.
In addition to McGill’s efforts, students have also taken steps to address the language gap on campus: Students can learn French through choosing to enroll in language courses, SSMU Mini-Courses, or in student-run French conversation circles.
Learning a new language at university is a challenging endeavour—meaningful language acquisition requires dedication, social interaction, and regular use. But the university can still work to encourage those students who are interested in learning French, and provide them with helpful resources. Students should be aware that learning French is a part of the Montreal experience, and is essential for those interested in pursuing a career in Quebec after graduation. Through French, students can tap into the rich bilingual culture that helps make Montreal the best city in the world for students.