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Investing in French in Vermont and New Hampshire

Vermont and New Hampshire are developing the use of French to attract tourists from Quebec just over the American border. A strategy for economic and linguistic development that is starting to pay dividends.

In Burlington, the biggest city in Vermont, even the parking meters are bilingual. At the airport and the marina, in public parks and the rooms of the Shelburne Museum, and in the restaurants and stores downtown, all signs are displayed in French and English. Since 2011 and the resolution passed by the city council, Burlington has become “French-friendly.”

More than 40,000 Francophones visit Burlington every year, and the vast majority are from Quebec. Drawn in by the favorable exchange rate and low sales taxes, the droves of tourists arrive by car — Montreal is just two hours away — or by boat via Lake Champlain. The city’s other advantages include its greenery, its accessible size (42,000 inhabitants), and the fact billboards are banned. Burlington is “a sweet little country village,” says Ron Redmond, director of the Church Street Marketplace, an open-air shopping and dining mall home in Downtown Burlington.

burlington-international-airport-vermont

© Julie Richards Photography

In an effort to accommodate its northern neighbors, the town of Burlington has started speaking French. This initiative began at the local airport, where 20% of travelers are Canadian. The signage, the departures and arrivals board, and the website have been translated into French. The Canadian flag hangs next to the American stars and stripes in the parking lot and on the concourse, while businesses in the airport are required to display information in both English and French. “We want to make French-speaking visitors feel welcome,” says Gene Richards, director of the local airport and the great-grandson of a Quebecer immigrant. “The relation between Vermont and Quebec is part of our history and culture, and it is also essential to our economy.”

French Spoken at the Border

More than 1.5 million Quebecers cross the border every year, and collectively spend 105.6 million dollars in Vermont annually. Bilingualism is therefore present as soon as they reach the border. “Bienvenue à nos voisins du nord,” announces one sign (Welcome to our neighbors to the north). “Nous espérons que votre séjour sera memorable” (We hope you enjoy your stay). During the summer, Quebecer tourists make up more than half of the clientele at the Splash bar and restaurant on the banks of Lake Champlain in Burlington. And at least half of the marina employees are Francophones in order to properly welcome pleasure boaters.

Along Church Street, the pedestrian main avenue through the center of Burlington, Quebecers comprise up to 20% of visitors. Stores display blue stickers in their windows proclaiming Bienvenue Québécois, and volunteers from the local Alliance Française manage a French-speaking information stand in the city center every Saturday from May through October. On Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the national holiday in Quebec every June 24, Burlington decks itself out in flags adorned with the iconic fleur-de-lys, and parking is free for vehicles with a Quebecer license plate!

The Patron of French in Burlington

The ruling passed to promote the French language and renewed by the city council in 2018 is non-binding. Bilingual signage is only a suggestion, and businesses that do so receive no financial assistance from the city. The signs, information stand, and French classes provided for free by the Alliance Française to employees in stores, cafes, and restaurants are all made possible through donations.

Ernest Pomerleau is a self-styled patron of French in Burlington. This real estate developer and honorary consul of France in Vermont has already contributed “thousands of dollars” to the initiative. Descended from French immigrants from Nice who moved to Quebec in the 19th century, he sees his actions as an investment. “This is both a tribute to my cultural background and a way to foster cross-border exchanges,” he says.

A Similar Initiative in New Hampshire

Some 90 miles east of Burlington, in New Hampshire, Bienvenue Québécois and Bienvenue au New Hampshire signs have also sprung up in the store windows of Littleton and Bethlehem. Tourism is the main industry in these small towns located at the foot of the White Mountains less than a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. Almost 228,000 Quebecers visit New Hampshire every year, and each person spends an average of 281 dollars.

bienvenue-quebecois-new-hampshire

© Bienvenue au New Hampshire/Facebook

But according to Katharine Harrington, professor of French at Plymouth State University, until recently there was nothing to welcome Francophone visitors. This shortcoming led to the creation of the Bienvenue au New Hampshire project, financed with 55,000 dollars from the university, the New Hampshire Canadian Trade Council, and a grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal agency that assists border regions in the north-east of the United States.

Miles and Kilometers

The project recently hired a full-time translator who now offers free translation services for the menus, brochures, and websites of stores and businesses in the counties of Grafton, Sullivan, and Coös. A French-language directory of restaurants, cafes, hotels, campsites, and other tourist attractions in Littleton and Bethlehem is set to be published this spring. French seminars for beginners are also provided for employees in hotels and restaurants, and five volunteers are raising awareness of Quebecer culture in local hiking clubs. This latter initiative includes putting kilometer markings on maps provided to hikers, and teaching a number of practical phrases such as Bonjour [Bon-joor], Comment ça va ? [Kuh-mahn sah vah ?], and Bonne randonnée ! [Bun ron-done-ay].

Canadian tourists are delighted to be welcomed in their own language, according to Katharine Harrington, but there is still progress to be made. “The residents of New Hampshire are still shy about promoting their Francophone roots in the same way as their neighbors in Vermont and Maine,” she says. “But we really need Francophones to welcome Quebecers and to encourage them to spend time in our state.”

  • Down here in Rhode Island the local Francophone community, made up of descendants of the French-Canadian emigrants from Quebec and New Brunswick in late 19th and early 20th century, is working hard to preserve our culture and build new links to French-speaking Canada. A good way to stay in touch is the Facebook page, French Canadian in New England.

  • Alors que les journalistes français de France Télévision se mettent à parler anglophone, je suis contente que Burlington dans le Vermont s’adonne au français. Est-ce un début de reconnaissance du français, soit que le français québécois soit un parler ressemblant aux Acadiens de Louisiane !!! Je vous embrasse.

  • Le français : ce n’est plus juste pour les incultes et les ignorants ! French: it’s not just for ignorant and uneducated people anymore. (But then, it never really was! That’s a stereotype.)

  • Bonjour,
    Très heureux que vous soyez sensibilisé à parler le français. Cela m’incite maintenant, à vous rendre visite à l’été (Maine, Vermont et New Hampshire).

  • As a New Englander, I think the French influence in VT and NH makes these places much more fun and interesting!
    Je viens de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et je pense que l’influence française dans VT et le NH rend ces lieux beaucoup plus amusants et intéressants !

  • And if this article called your attention and you always wanted to learn or improve your French, check out the French classes the Alliance Française in VT offers (www.aflcr.org), and the day-trip French immersion with Your French Connection (www.yourfrenchconnection.net). A bientôt !

  • I am a French teacher in Massachusetts but would love to get involved somehow with some of these initiatives. I think preserving these vital economic and historical links are vitally important. How can I help?

  • Je suis professeure de français au Michigan. Toute initiative favorisant les relations américaines avec l’extérieur est excellente et plus importante que jamais.

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