Fashion Industry: Bilingualism opens doors

(NC)—“Qui parmi vous parle français?” It was the first question posed to us on the first day of class. The last word was stressed with typical Parisian repudiation, as if to welcome us and dismiss us simultaneously. The school director, well into her seventies, stood at the front of the class, lit a cigarette and waited for the response.

Of the hundred or so students assembled in the room, only a handful raised their hands. A few more then followed until just over three quarters of the room had raised their hands. Of the little French I had, all of it I had learned in Montréal. Before moving to Paris, I moved to Montréal to enroll in a fashion design program and to pick up as much of the language as I could. I could barely order a cup of coffee without garnering a smile from the girl behind the counter when I first moved to Montréal. Yet it seemed everywhere I went, people switched effortlessly between the two languages. It was truly something to admire and something to strive towards.

Street signs, television, radio—everything became a method of instruction. Most helpful were the free newspapers distributed in the subway. My goal was always five new words a day. I would figure out what they meant, write them on my hand and try to use them in conversation. That first day of school in Paris, I raised my hand. Admittedly not straight in the air, but it was a defining moment, nonetheless.

Over the next few months, however, I came to realize that my mother tongue would be just as important.

The school I attended was well known for its connections within the fashion industry. All the major French fashion houses turned to this school first for interns, short-term work placements and to help out with fashion shows and showrooms—the sort of connections that every young designer hopes for. But for all these opportunities, it was a question of English. “Est-ce que vous parlez couramment l'anglais?”

I believe that we Canadians are extremely fortunate to have the two most predominant languages of the fashion industry at our fingertips. Time and again I have seen Canadians rise to top positions within the industry, with proficiency in these two languages playing a critical role. The true scale of Canadian talent has not yet been seen on the international stage, and I strongly believe that language will be a vehicle that will enable this to happen.

Do you want to pursue second-language learning in university? The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages' (OCOL) online map of Canadian universities, Two Languages, a World of Opportunities, provides information on opportunities offered in various institutions across the country. For more information please visit OCOL's Web site at


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