How plurilingualism is changing the way we think about French grammar

Faculty of Education
Mois de la Francophonie
Speech bubbles, diverse conversations
One of his academic colleagues calls him ‘Grammar Boy.’ It’s a fitting nickname. As a researcher focused on the teaching and learning of French in minority contexts, Professor Joël Thibeault explores how students learn language and construct their linguistic identities. His interest in grammar goes beyond the simple structure of sentence formation. One of his aims is to challenge the privileged status associated with standard French and its grammar. In his view, the participation of students and teachers in contemporary grammatical debates is essential for citizenship education to flourish in the French classroom.

Professor Thibeault's research examines student learning in French-language schools in Ontario and Saskatchewan, as well as the pedagogical approaches used in provinces where French is not the majority language. He focuses on the challenges of learning grammar in these minority contexts and the various methods educators use to teach grammatical rules, vocabulary, and spelling.

Learning French where English is the predominant language presents unique challenges. Thibeault explains that teaching in these contexts aims to preserve the French language, thereby ensuring its development and sustainability. This can create tension, however, as many students are constructing linguistic identities that go beyond French. Most students in Ontario live and study in both French and English, while those from newcomer backgrounds come from families where several languages intersect. It can be difficult for them to achieve the monolingual Francophone "ideal" that lingers in our collective imagination.

According to Thibeault, grammar is placed on a symbolic pedestal. It is this unattainable object. When transposed to a Francophone minority context and taught traditionally, it can come with certain discourses of belonging in which some students may not see themselves.  

"You have to respect all the standards, all the conventions. If you don't, you're not a true Francophone; only authentic Francophones can master grammar," we sometimes hear. Thibeault cautions that this kind of thinking can have an impact on students' motivation to learn French. 

This leads to linguistic insecurity, where the worry is that you are not speaking the right kind of French, he says.  

Thibeault stresses the need to reflect on students' relationship with the language and to propose a vision of the French-speaking world that is more inclusive and adapted to their linguistic reality. He says this can be accomplished during grammar lessons.

Taking linguistic diversity into account

Things are changing, says Thibeault.  “School boards in Ontario are opening to a vision of a plural francophonie. Diversity is becoming a pillar of Francophone communities and so education policy is slowly beginning to value plurilingualism and its importance for equity.”  

The most recent Ontario French curriculum policy published in 2023 is one example of the shift. Elementary school teachers in Ontario are now asked to implement ‘plurilingual’ approaches in which the diverse linguistic backgrounds of students are welcomed.

In his work with different boards, he is seeing more teaching approaches that are inclusive, in which students are encouraged to compare the languages they already know to improve their learning of French. 

A diverse and inclusive Francophonie

Thibeault highlights the move towards a more inclusive education, with a focus on student success. "During a recent visit to a primary school, I was impressed by the fact that the word 'bienvenue' (welcome) was displayed in 20 different languages." 

Plurilingualism is having the ability to understand and communicate in several languages. "Everyone has a varied linguistic repertoire. It is essential to stop segmenting the languages that pupils know and to emphasize the links between this knowledge", explains Thibeault. In grammar, this approach might involve asking a pupil to compare grammatical concepts between different languages to bring out the similarities and differences between them. This recognition of diversity, he believes, fosters an inclusive school environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued.

Thibeault questions the definition of a what is a true Francophone. For him, knowing several languages should not be a source of discrimination. 

"Speaking Italian or Urdu as well as French does not make someone less of a Francophone. It simply means that they are lucky enough to know Italian or Urdu," he insists. "The notion of Francophonie can take on different meanings. I welcome the evolution of Francophone school environments in Ontario, which are moving away from a traditional vision of the Francophonie to ensure its continued existence." 

Thibeault rejects the idea that one student can be more Francophone than another, pointing out that this view hinders learning. "As soon as you enter a French-language school, you are a francophone. I start from the premise that everyone is francophone. Even if they started learning French that morning," he says.

Joël Thibeault
Faculty of Education

“As soon as you enter a French-language school, you are a francophone. I start from the premise that everyone is francophone. Even if they started learning French that morning.”

Joël Thibeault

— Associate Professor

The grammar debate

Thibeault raises the current grammar reform debate on how past participles are written in French. "We know these grammatical rules are among the most difficult for students to learn and many hours of teaching are devoted to them, why not involve students in the discussion?" suggests Thibeault. 

Rather than simply teaching the rules, teachers could address the social and historical roots of the norms. In this way, students could understand their origins and participate in the social debates about language that directly affect them.

"Why does the masculine take precedence over the feminine in French? That's a good question I ask myself every day. You know, there are historical reasons for this which we can discuss with the students." 

"Then we could consider teaching current grammatical rules that highlight women, or other people who don't fit into the binary system, so that they can recognise themselves more clearly in the language."  "Why not teach non-binary pronouns in grammar lessons?" asks Thibeault. 

He recounts the experience of a teacher in one of his research projects who had a non-binary student in her class. She didn't know how to teach grammatical agreements when the speaker was a non-binary individual. She initiated a frank discussion in class, acknowledging that she didn't know what to do. She and her class researched together to explore how non-binary French grammar works. It was a real collaboration. The non-binary pupil chose the pronoun "ol" and was comfortable using this grammatical form in their work.

In this example, we see a teacher who accompanies students in their learning about grammar in which they see themselves represented. Education needs to consider individual contexts to encourage full student participation. This can be done through plurilingual approaches respecting the complexity of all individuals in a classroom. It recognizes diversity and transforms grammar into a tool for full inclusion in the French-speaking world.

Thinking differently about grammar

Grammar is the common thread running through Professor Thibeault's work and thinking. He says he supports teaching standardized grammar in schools, which helps to bring together members of the various French-speaking communities around the world. However, he also believes that grammar should be removed from its symbolic pedestal and taught in a way that reflects the realities of today's diverse classrooms. In this way, he believes, it can effectively contribute to the egalitarian and empowering aims of education.

Thibeault's recent publications include: Exploring practices rooted in plurilingualism and language varieties for teaching grammar in French Ontario (Thibeault, Maynard & Boisvert, 2022); Quand plusieurs normes linguistiques s'invitent dans le cours de grammaire (Thibeault & Maynard, 2022); and Didactique du français en contextes minoritaires: Entre normes scolaires et plurilinguismes (Thibeault & Fleuret, Eds., 2020).