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!

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