CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – March 9, 2012 – More than 40 Island employers and economic development stakeholders were told on March 7 that it just makes plain economic sense to offer bilingual services on PEI, especially in the tourism sector or in businesses that do business with French-speaking provinces or countries.
On the other hand, employers said they need “a reason to believe” that the extra effort to provide these services and the amounts invested will be positively reflected in their bottom line.
These discussions and many more were held in Charlottetown during the Bilingual Business Advantage Seminar, organized jointly by Canadian Parents for French PEI and RDÉE Prince Edward Island (the provincial francophone economic development council).
Both organizers say they are extremely pleased with the level of participation and sharing that happened during the seminar. Their goal of making employers more aware of the resources available to them was also met with flying colors.
“This day was an eye-opener. The light bulb came on today!” one participant was heard to say.
The half-day event began with the presentation of impressive statistics about the current French-speaking population and work force. Gary Doucette, executive director of the RDÉE, noted that the Island has “a vibrant francophone community” of about 17,000 people (including about 6,000 who have French as a first language and 11,000 who learned it through immersion courses). This number, which currently represents about 13 per cent of the Island’s overall population, is steadily increasing. About 93 per cent of these people live in Prince and Queens Counties.
“The Island’s education system is producing a quantity of bilingual people,” said Gail Lecky, executive director of CPF PEI. “We want to start making businesses aware that there are bilingual employees there for you.”
Two well-known Island companies that offer services in both English and French provided testimonials about the importance of these bilingual services to their bottom line.
In his captivating motivational talk, Stéphane Parent from DeltaWare Systems of Charlottetown said almost one in four Canadians have French as mother tongue. So when dealing with clients, it is always an advantage to speak their language since they tend to become less guarded, more comfortable and more trusting.
This “strategic advantage”, as Parent calls it, helps develop business relationships more quickly and often translates into greater sales, as has been proven time and again with his company. “French is not a cost since it helps your business grow and gives you an edge, an entry point into lots of markets.”
Jeannette Arsenault, co-owner of Cavendish Figurines in Borden-Carleton, said her bilingual business attracts a large number of Quebec tourists, most of whom hardly speak any English. They keep telling her they are extremely pleased to be served in French at her business. She noted Quebeckers are very faithful customers who keep coming back if they’ve been served well the first time; they also encourage their friends and families to visit locations where they have been well served, especially in their own language.
Seeing the Quebec flag outside of her business makes tourists from that province feel reassured, welcomed and at home. Going that extra little distance to serve them in their own language also translates directly into sales at her shop.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
During lively small-group discussions, participants identified both challenges and opportunities of hiring of French-speaking staff and in the offering of French services.
Identified roadblocks were difficulty in recruiting and retaining bilingual staffing with proper skill sets; lack of a bilingual workforce in some areas such as Kings County; inability by Anglophone employers to verify their staff’s level of French competency and the quality of service they deliver in French; fear about advertising in French but not being able to offer services in French; fear about having to pay higher wages for bilingual employees; expenses to translate web site and promotional material; and low language confidence levels among some Francophiles.
Among the identified opportunities were: ready access to a large potential, mostly well-educated bilingual work force; availability of financial assistance programs for translation; major broadening of market possibilities; and great potential for increased revenue because of additional customers.
A panel of experts also shared about various services and initiatives available to help employers in their quest to make their businesses bilingual.
Micheline Roy from Translation NB Traduction explained her organization administers the Translation Assistance Program that covers 75 per cent of translation costs, up to $5,000, for businesses meeting fairly open criteria. Signage, websites, pamphlets, catalogues, menus, sales tags, product descriptions, interpretative panels and other such items qualify for translation.
Byron Lindsay, representing the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, readily acknowledged bilingualism in business “is an asset”. As others had mentioned earlier in the day, some 80,000 people from Quebec pass through PEI on their way to the Magdalen Islands ferry in Souris. He said these people hardly spend any money on PEI but represent an incredible potential: “You have to engage them a little bit” and appeal to them in their own language, which will encourage them to purchase local products and services.
Even something as simple as playing French radio in the background at a store will make a difference, both for francophone customers and for French immersion graduates working at the store who wish to maintain their French skills, he added.
Guy Albert from the Department of Education said proficiency is directly proportional to the practice of the language. He also noted his department has an under-utilized bursary fund to help students wishing to pursue their postsecondary education in French. “We’ve got more money than applications.”
Donald DesRoches from Le Collège Acadie Î.-P.-É. said the college provides adult language training to government and the private sector for those wishing to train current staff in French. Courses can be taken at one of the college’s three campuses or online with telephone tutoring. Custom-made training is also available.
In answer to some employer concerns about measuring proficiency levels among their Francophile staff, he said the college currently has the capacity to evaluate oral and written proficiency.
Aubrey Cormier from the province’s Acadian and Francophone Affairs Division said the Island’s Francophone community and the Francophile community are slowly coming together and joining forces to develop a single, stronger French-speaking community on the Island.
CUTLINE: The Bilingual Business Advantage Seminar, held March 7 in Charlotettown, provided much food for thought for employers considering offering bilingual services. From left are co-organizer Gary Doucette, executive director of RDÉE Prince Edward Island; presenter Jeannette Arsenault from Cavendish Figurines; co-organizer Gail Lecky, executive director of Canadian Parents for French PEI; and presenter Stéphane Parent from DeltaWare Systems.
For more information:
Canadian Parents for French
RDÉE Prince Edward Island