Water splashes in my face. The roar of the Métabetchouan river nearly drowns the constant “un, deux, un, deux” rhythm of my boat mates and their paddles. The river is angry and tries to shake us from our boat. But my foot wedges further under the seat in front of me.
I feel like Indiana Jones fighting my way around big rocks that pop their grey heads out of the dark water. Suddenly, our boat is pushed towards a massive cliff.
“Get down! Get down!” screams our guide and we jump into the middle of the rubber raft. Squashed between the air-filled seats and my life jacket, I await the smash. A creaking, and seconds later, everyone is still on board. While I do my best to get back seated on the boat’s edge without losing my paddle, the guide praises our fast reaction, “Well done, girls! That was awesome!” It was really awesome, especially because I didn’t come to Quebec to play Indiana Jones, but to study French.
Last spring, I was one of over 160 young adults who traveled from across Canada to Jonquière, north of Quebec City, to participate in the language-immersion program explore. Since 1971, when the Canadian government decided to promote learning of its official languages, all those interested could live with a French-speaking family, attend French courses, and explore regions like Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean where most people speak French only.
Many from Jonquière offered a place to explore participants, like Olga Granados, who lived for five weeks with a host family and three other girls.
“My time with my host family was very comfortable both materially and socially. They were always very kind and punctual, always most accommodating and obliging,” she said.
The biggest challenge for the 25-year-old was the tightly packed schedule of classes, activities and homework.
“It never even crossed my mind that we would be assigned any homework! To be honest, I imagined a very relaxing learning atmosphere with very little structure or goals to be met. I also imagined there would be lot of free time and that the scale of activities would be very small and comfortably met by students,” she said.
According to the level of language skills, teachers focus on speaking and listening, but also on essential grammar structures and vocabulary building.
“The teachers are very dynamic, joyful and patient,” said 27-year-old Thomas Harrison.
“The first two weeks were very hard. It’s really stressful for your brain when you only know several words and your teacher doesn’t speak any English. But it’s good too, I learned very fast.”
Since explore aims for better communication skills, participants had to sign a contract of honour saying they would only speak French during all the activities the animators and directors planned. Those activities varied from sightseeing tours and movie nights to volleyball matches and the Quebecois Kinball, a very special ball game.
“If I had to imagine a sport, no matter how silly and insane, the rules of kinball would have never crossed my mind on their own. It was so much fun!” said Olga Granados.
Another favourite was the Kermesse, a funfair for middle school students prepared and performed by explore participants.
“I loved the idea that we could work with children and play games. I think it was a good experience not only for the language, but also for us as persons,” said Kevin Mathew Dickie, a 20-year-old British Columbian.
As our boat drifts down the now calm river, I’m taking in the beautiful sights that can’t be clouded by the drizzle.
“If you want to, you can go for a little swim,” suggests our guide. Although I’m freezing, I take off my shoes and let myself fall backwards into the water. It’s not as cold as I expected. Relaxed, I float and think about my trip. Five weeks seemed long when I got on to my plane, but thanks to the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned, time went by like the rapids of the Métabetchouan river.