Bienvenue à Burlington!

church street

Last week’s blog was inspired by an enlightening encounter during a trip to Burlington, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. This wasn’t the first time that Burlington has provided the backdrop for the scenarios presented on our blog – we’ve written about the lively Bosnian community in the city and its environs as well as the bilingual French heritage of the Green Mountain State.

The French-speaking ancestors of many Northern Vermonters immigrated to the area at a time when Quebec was a poor province and the factories of New England offered the prospect of steady work. The tables have slowly turned and Vermonters are now used to seeing Québécois as relatively wealthy tourists on par with the New Yorkers and Bostonians who seem to have been vacationing in the region since the Republic of Vermont became the 14th of the United States.

I was particularly struck by this change as I strolled down Burlington’s charming downtown marketplace, Church Street. Many of the restaurants, cafés and boutiques lining the pedestrian street make it clear that they happily welcome the new foreign clientele with a little blue sticker which reads “Bienvenue Québécois.”

The simple blue stickers are a small change to Church Street’s quaint aesthetic, but they represent a big change to its mentality. Issued in 2011, the Bienvenue stickers were joined in 2013 by over 700 bilingual signs on parking meters, courtesy of the Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region, adding to a concerted effort to capitalize on Vermont’s proximity to Canada’s French-speaking province. After all, tourists come from New York and Boston, which are 300 and 215 miles away, respectively; why shouldn’t they come from Montreal, which is at a relatively short distance of 95 miles?

The fact the signs are written directly in French means that store and restaurant personnel on Church Street are ready to welcome not only the Northern tourists, but their language as well. In order to help the downtown merchants with this task, the Alliance Francaise offers them affordable French language courses under the auspices of a program called “Bilingual Burlington.”

Curious to know how much salespeople and waiters actually use French with customers, I stopped in to Jess Boutique to ask a few questions. General Manager Erin Brennan explains:

“I believe I am the only one who speaks any French in the store right now. I took about 6 years of French in high school and at Concordia University when I was living in Montreal. My conversational skills are basic, but I have used them some with customers in the store. I find it’s mostly helpful in understanding what people are saying and less helpful when I am trying to converse. I tend to get a bit nervous and forget my vocab and verb conjugation skills! Most Quebecois tourists speak both English and French, or have someone with them who does.”

As a foreign language teacher, I know that when someone has studied a language for several years but gets nervous when she has to speak, what she needs is a little practice! After my quick visit to Burlington, it seems to me that Erin is in a great position to get just that – Church Street has opened its arms to its northern neighbors and has created an environment where their language is well-received. I heard echoes of French all around town, and over time I wouldn’t be surprised to see Church Street merchants acquire more confidence in their language skills. I’m looking forward to hearing a few more bienvenue‘s the next time I come to visit!

Let Go of the Training Wheels

Kids Bike With Training Wheels Closeup

A couple of weekends ago, driven by an urge to turn lemons into lemonade and at least enjoy all of this snow that New England is being smothered in, we headed up out of Boston and set our sights on the winter wonderland par excellence Vermont.

Upon our arrival in Burlington, we walked down the hill to where the city meets Lake Champlain and set out for a jaunt along the lakefront bikepath. There were a fair number of people out and we had the pleasure of one particularly interesting encounter.

Stopping at a certain point to sit on a bench and enjoy the view of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains on its far side, we ended up engaging in a bit of chit chat with our neighbors. It turns out the amiable couple coddling a tiny infant swaddled in layers of the finest Vermont winter outerwear were proud new grandparents taking their cheerful first grandson on a tour of his hometown. The bikepath, they said, would surely become a favorite place of his; he would probably be taking a bike up and down it “in just a couple of years.”

Looking around at the piles of white stuff and laughing, I asked them if they thought their grandson – who I estimated was hovering somewhere around the quarter-year mark – would need to put chains on his training wheels to accomplish such a feat.

Joking aside, I quickly learned that these grandparents had about as much intention to outfit their grandson’s toddler bike with training wheels as they did with chains. I was assured that by about two and a half years old any child can learn how to ride a bicycle. These two knew – they’d had six kids and plenty of opportunities to optimize the learning curve. Their first child had used training wheels and hadn’t learned to ride a bike until age 6, while the youngest children had starting plummeting down the incline in their yard before they had reached the age of 3.The trick? Never use training wheels.

Training wheels, they explained to me, give the child a false sense of balance, while all he or she really needs is to acquire an idea of how to pedal using a tricycle before being let loose on a two-wheeler. What results from this advice is a seeming paradox. Training wheels – which are supposed to help a child learn how to acquire balance and security – actually impede her from doing so.

Later on, back in the B&B, I was struck by a sudden parallel between riding a bicycle and learning to speak a language. In order to learn quickly and properly you must let go of your security devices – your metaphorical “training wheels.”

The “training wheels” for a language learner are his or her mother tongue. Especially when we are at the beginning of learning a new language, the possibility of failing to communicate and therefore falling off of the bike are rather high. At this point our mother tongue comes to the rescue, says what we were unable to say in the new language, and saves us the embarrassment of “falling.”

In certain situations – for example if you wind up in the emergency room during a trip to Guatemala and urgently need to explain to the hospital personnel what has befallen you – communication in any language whatsoever is all-important. However, when we are studying, our goal should be the acquisition of a sense of “balance” in our new language – that minimal sense of security which allows us to move forward autonomously. This balance can only be acquired if we attempt to rely exclusively on the new language.

It is easy to forget much of we have learned in a foreign language, and in fact it is common to hear, “I studied French for 4 years in high school and don’t remember a word of it!” or “It’s been years since I’ve spoken German and I’ve forgotten everything.” In reality, what we forget are usually superficial elements like vocabulary; if we learn to acquire a knowledge of the elusive inner working of a language – of its fundamental mechanism, which works differently from the way our own language does – this is a lesson we will never forget.

If one lets go of the fear of failure and tries to acquire balance and self-security, speaking a new language really does become like riding a bicycle – once you learn how you never forget.

Albert Brisbane – From Batavia to France and Beyond

Sorbonne Or University Of Paris In Paris, France.

The Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris


Last week, in showing how language teacher Jean Manesca‘s method was likely plagiarized by Heinrich Ollendorf we used direct testimony from Albert Brisbane, who was a student of both teachers and provided Ollendorf with Manesca’s course notes. Beyond his innocent and yet fundamental role in the Ollendorf-Manesca story, Brisbane is of interest to us for another reason: he is an example of just how far meticulous and motivated study of foreign languages can take you.

Albert Brisbane was born in 1809 in Batavia, New York – a small town smack in the middle of Genessee Country in the far western reaches of Upstate New York which at the time was essentially a frontier town; in fact Batavia now bears the nickname 1802 Birthplace of Western New York. At the age of 15, Albert’s father sent him to New York City to study. The meeting with French teacher Jean Manesca was fateful, and at the age of 18 Brisbane set sail for France armed with a solid knowledge of the French language and an enthusiastic curiosity about the Enlightenment culture which had pervaded the teachings of his French instructor.

Upon arriving in Paris Brisbane made a beeline for one of the most prominent institutions of learning in the world at the time – the Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris. From rural Batavia by way of bustling New York, Brisbane had finally arrived at what most have seemed to him the center of the intellectual world. However before long he began to realize that the lessons of the teacher who most interested him at the Sorbonne – Victor Cousin – were nothing more than a translation of German philosophical thought. Kant, Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel were all to be found to the east of the Rhine.

And thus, as the land of his intellectual interest shifted eastward, so did Brisbane’s linguistic curiosities. The meeting with German teacher Heinrich Ollendorf was pursuant to the discovery of German philosophers and it served its purpose – after only a year in Paris Brisbane left for Berlin. However the magic of Germany lasted about as long as had that of France, and in October 1930 Brisbane left on a grand tour which would take him first to Vienna and then as far as Turkey and Greece before eventually bringing him back to Paris.

It was upon his return to Paris that the exemplary student met his final teacher. After having travelled all across Europe, delved into French and German philosophy and hobnobbed with the most avant-garde intellectuals on the continent, Brisbane decided that the way of the future was to be found in a French philosopher. Charles Fourier was one of the earliest socialists and in particular is associated with “utopian socialism,” a branch of early socialism which imagined the creation of future utopian societies based on positivist ideals. We are told that Brisbane paid Fourier five francs an hour to teach him his system – and just as it had with Manesca and Ollendorf, the investment paid off.

Albert Brisbane returned to Batavia after two more years in Paris, and in 1840 he published Social Destiny of Man, a text which essentially translated Fourier’s ideas across linguistic and national boundaries. The book brought Brisbane great prestige, and he quickly built Fourierism into a national movement with branches all across the United States, including in the Federal Government. By 1844 10 Fourierist “Phalanxes” (utopian communities) had been established across the United States and others were in the works.

At the head of a national movement, Albert Brisbane could at this point look back and be happy with the results of his education. His French and German lessons had allowed him to absorb the highest level of European intellectual thought and had paved the way for the series of lessons in philosophy which would become the foundation of an important career. The story of Brisbane’s career up until 1844 is a tale of the utility of foreign languages.

However, at the height of his career, Brisbane left the United States to spend 8 months in France. In his absence the Fourierist movement – which had been at the peak of its inertia – collapsed and would never again recover.

Historian Carl Guarnieri sees in Brisbane’s escape to France at this crucial moment a “lifelong inability to cope with power and responsibility.” However, Brisbane split the rest of his life between France and the United States, and so we might surmise that despite any career disappointments, Brisbane continued to look back gratefully on those French lessons he had received from Jean Manesca as an eager, wide-eyed teenager freshly arrived from Upstate New York.