Languages: An Entry Visa to the World

Christie Dennison’s parents enrolled her in the French immersion program because they wanted to give her every chance of success in a bilingual province. Mission accomplished. Today, thanks to her command of both official languages, Christie manages international development projects around the world. She is a true poster girl for French immersion in New Brunswick.

When asked about the challenges of learning a second language during the early school years, Christie Dennison sees none. “For me, it was something that offered advantages,” said the young native Frederictonian. “It was part of learning.”

All of her schooling took place in immersion, first at St. Dunstan’s School, then at George Street Junior High School, and lastly at Fredericton High School. She therefore felt equipped to continue her studies in French and English at the University of Ottawa, a bilingual university.

The strong presence of two linguistic communities at this university and her participation in the House of Commons Page Program stimulated Christie’s interest in the Canadian francophonie. She met francophones from across Canada and became friends with many of them. At the University of Ottawa, Christie studied political science and learned Spanish. Her BA in hand, the young woman left for Great Britain, where she obtained a master’s degree in conflict resolution and peace studies. She felt she was ready to travel the world.

“I did a few internships, and I had the opportunity to work for the United Nations Development Programme in Uzbekistan, in central Asia. That was my first job in another country, and it was fantastic. I learned so much.” Her work as a Gender and Development Advisor involved mainly participating in international committees that guided and supported local Uzbek organizations in promoting women’s economic and social rights.

At the end of this first contract, Christie began looking for a new position. She found the perfect job, but it was in Senegal, a francophone country. Christie knew that her skills and her work experience made her an ideal candidate. Although she had never worked exclusively in French, that was no obstacle for her, so she went ahead and applied.

“They offered me the position. I went to Senegal for a year. It was a total immersion experience.” In that country, Christie worked with groups of women in order to help them sell their products on local markets. The young woman really feels that this experience enabled her to improve her French tremendously. “Communicating effectively in a different cultural environment forces us to modify our physical and oral language,” she said. “I communicated with my Senegalese colleagues mainly in French, because that was our only common language before I learned a little Wolof. They came from different ethnic groups and, like me, had learned French in school. A desire to collaborate on human development projects motivated us to overcome our cultural and linguistic differences.”

While she was living abroad, Christie discovered that a consortium working in international development, SavoirSphère Canada – LearnSphere Canada, had its offices in her hometown. She got in touch with the organization. Then, she left the African continent and went to Haiti, where she worked for the United Nations for a few months. Finally, in 2006, Christie returned to Canada. Her contacts with LearnSphere panned out, and the organization hired her.

As Project Manager, Christie now works on international development projects that enlist the expertise of New Brunswick training firms and organizations. Naturally, her command of French is an undeniable asset. “Two of our largest international projects are in Cameroon, and they are francophone projects,” she added. Christie believes that her immersion experiences, especially in Senegal, gave her a better understanding of the situation of francophones who live in a minority setting in New Brunswick. “It’s not easy to live and work in a language other than your mother tongue,” she said. “Even after attaining some level of proficiency in the other language, barriers still exist.”

Although her current job enables her to travel on occasion, Christie would like to work abroad again one day. She already has the best entry visa: a command of several languages.