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!

The Bilingual U.S. – Bosnian Burlington, VT

The Hungarians and Cubans who fled communist regimes were the first of a special class of immigrants who have had particular importance in our country over the past half-century: refugees. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980 the United States Refugee Resettlement Program has provided government assistance to refugees of “special humanitarian concern.”

For the small, homogeneous state of Vermont (which has a strong French-Canadian culture), the arrival of refugees through the Resettlement Program has created a diverse community, especially around its population center, Burlington. In the words of City Councilor Clarence Davis, “There are 27 languages spoken in Burlington, and Bosnians make up Burlington’s biggest immigrant community.”

The Bosnian language which has risen to a place of prominence in this small Northern New England community officially came into existence only about 20 years ago. In 1992 the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the bloody war which followed prompted the mass exodus of refugees to Western Europe and North America. At the end of the war Bosnians found themselves independent for the first time since the 14th century.

Present-day Bosnia is surrounded by its former Yugoslavian compatriots- Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Each of the four countries boasts a distinct language which is however mutually intelligible with the others. In fact the four languages are so close that until the breakup of Yugoslavia they were generically known as a single language- Serbo-Croatian.

The four South Slavic languages are an example of what linguist Heinz Kloss defined Ausbausprache– meaning that they have acquired independent language status as a result of having been developed from a common base. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are another example of this phenomenon, which also known as “elaborated language.” Political factors are usually important in the formation of a situation of Ausbausprache. When Yugoslavia existed as a united country it was considered that one national language and various dialects were spoken; but now that they are independent we recognize four distinct languages.

There are some differences between Bosnian and its former Serbo-Croatian fellows- in fact the Balkans are home to a great deal of vocabulary and pronunciation variations. However the most interesting difference may be in the script; while in Croatia only Latin characters are used (Croatia: Hrvatska), and in Serbia Latin and Cyrillic characters are used alternatively (Serbia: Srbija, Србија), in Bosnia Arabic script was historically at least until the 1940’s (Bosnia: Bosna, Босна, البوسنة), a relic of the more than 400-year Ottoman rule of the Balkan nation. In fact, although the Arabic script might have fallen out of use, most ethnic Bosnians continue to practice Islam.

Religion was just one of the differences which contributed to the great tension between ethnicities in the former Yugoslavia, a tension which reached its tragic climax in a terrifying program of ethnic cleansing.

In 2011 Burlington’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Church Street, became home to a commemoration to the most gruesome massacre of the Bosnian War, the genocide of more than 8,000 civilians in the city of Srebrenica in 1995, at war’s end. The creator of the memorial, Aida Sehovic, fled Bosnia with her family in 1992 and arrived in Vermont by way of Germany and Turkey in 1997. Her exhibit- which she has named Što Te Nema? (Why are you not here?)- has been shown not only in her new “hometown” but in Bosnia, New York City, The Hague, and Stockholm as well.

Many Bosnians like Sehovic now feel at home on the green shores of Lake Champlain. Bosnian Vermonters have a soccer club, FC Bosnia VT, offer their traditional foods to the greater public in various restaurants and markets such as the Euro Market, and have even organized a film festival, the Bosansko Vermontski Filmski Festival.

The Vermont Bosnian community is young and growing. Groups like The Bosnian Lilies focus on the youngest members; its objective is to “provide opportunities for Bosnian girls and boys, ages two to early teens, to come together, interact with each other, learn about their heritage, traditions, and native language, and above all maintain their native culture. Almost every child speaks ‘broken’ Bosnian and good English.” Far from the scene of the bloody Balkan wars, Burlington may offer the Bosnian language a place to blossom anew.

The Bilingual U.S. – French Vermont

The French language is one of the primary languages in North America. It is the official language of the Canadian Province of Quebec and shares this distinction with English in the Province of New Brunswick.

The Northern New England states bordering these provinces- Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine- all have some French in their heritage as a result of contact with their northern neighbors, albeit in three very different ways. This is the first of a three-part series which explores the history of the French language in Northern New England. Today’s post focuses on the smallest of the states- Vermont.


The first European explorers to discover Vermont were in fact French: Jacques Cartier is thought to have set foot in Vermont in 1535 while Samuel de Champlain visited the area he named les Verts Monts (The Green Mountains) in 1609 and would thereafter give his name to the state’s important lake.  The construction of Fort Sainte Anne on Isle La Motte in Lake Champlain- the first European settlement in Vermont- signaled France’s claim to the area.

Southern Vermont, meanwhile, saw settlement from the neighboring British colonies of New York and Massachusetts. The area remained a disputed territory until the 1763 Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian War ceded control to the British, who decided to allow settlement only in Southern Vermont, leaving Northern Vermont to the Indians. A cultural distinction between North and South remains to this day.

Vermont, whose population center, Burlington, lies only 45 miles from the Canadian border, is simply the closest state to Quebec, and so early Canadian immigrants often stopped their journey here. Between 1840 and 1930 900,000 French-Canadians immigrated to the United States. In 1860, 44% (16,580 people) of the immigrants from Quebec to the six New England states had chosen to remain in Vermont, although industrialization later caused immigrants to prefer the factory towns of Southern New England over the agricultural jobs generally found in Vermont.

Factory jobs were to be found, however, at the textile mills of Winooski, a village just outside of Burlington. In 1867 the total population of Winooski was 1,745, of whom 855 were French-Americans. The parish of St. Francis Xavier was founded in 1868 in Winooski to serve this population- masses were in French and education at the parochial school was bilingual.

As for many immigrant groups, religion was an important identifier for French-Canadians in Vermont and was the only institutional context in which they could use their native tongue. In 1891 the diocese of Burlington had a French-speaking priest for every 1,600 francophone parishioners- the best ratio in New England, and really no surprise considering that of the 45,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Burlington in 1890, at least 33,000 were of French-Canadian origin. However the upper echelons of the church hierarchy were not very sympathetic to its French parishioners. Said the Bishop of Burlington in 1908: “As to the prominence and influence of French-Canadians, the claim that they possess either, is misleading. Good people and devoted, yes. But they havenot (sic) the education or the other qualities for prominence and influence, either in Church or state.”

The Good Bishop also made a prediction about the fate of the French language in Vermont: “in a very few years there shall be little or not (sic) French spoken in Vermont, unless in…Winooski…because they have French schools.” The words of the Bishop were prophetic- in Vermont, 24% of residents declare that they are of French or French-Canadian heritage, making this the largest ethnic group in the state; and yet the French language is nowhere to be heard, even in Winooski, where as recently as 1990 55% of residents claimed French-Canadian heritage. This perhaps coincides with the demise of bilingual education- the St. Francis Xavier school still exists, but offers instruction only in English.

The result of decades of growth in Vermont is that despite its historical importance to the state and its people, French is a language which is to be learned and spoken only at home; however the recent strengthening of the Canadian dollar with respect to U.S. currency may catalyze some change in this situation. Last year the City Council of Burlington passed a resolution encouraging the use of both French and English on everything from highway signs to restaurant menus.

In Northern Vermont the history of French is still being written. Increasing tourism, business, and political relations with Quebec may restore institutional dignity to the French language. In the land where the “rivers flow north”, lakes, radio programs, and entire towns cross the border; an increased level of bilingualism is the last piece of the puzzle.