Parlez-vous francais?

This feature story, which I wrote for the UWI Today, won a 2010 Apex Award! I loved writing this because I actually was a student of both Eric and Dr Carter, and I left UWI with a great professional regard for them both. When I was writing this piece, I gave them a great share of ownership in the drafting process and they stewarded that share very well, gracefully enduring my many phone calls and gently prevailing on me to make subtle adjustments to earlier drafts.

Parlez-vous francais

“CARICOM people have to understand that English is only the third language of the Caribbean,” says Eric Maitrejean. He’s doing the math out loud for me and his colleague, Dr Beverly-Anne Carter, to hear. The English-speaking islands taken together only have about five million people, he says, while the French and Spanish speakers of the region number in the tens of millions. It’s me he’s talking to, though. Dr Carter needs no convincing, and nods knowingly without saying a word.

Mr Maitrejean is a French Lecturer in The University of the West Indies (UWI), Faculty of Humanities and Education, Department of Liberal Arts. Dr Carter is Director of the UWI Centre for Language Learning (CLL). We’re in her office on the CLL first floor, and I’m trying to convince Maitrejean to remove a picture from his Facebook profile. The photo—which I wanted to keep as an exclusive for UWI Today—shows him and Carter moments after they received a prestigious French national award at a pretty low-key ceremony held at the French Ambassador’s residence in St. Clair on Friday 5th December, 2008. Both were honoured by the French government for their work in the academic field, work that French Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Mr Michel Trinquier summarised as “preserving and encouraging what we consider to be an essential vehicle for the spread of our culture and our ideas.” In the end, Maitrejean tells me there are only about 100 or so people on his FB profile anyway, and we all three agree that in that case it’s not that big a deal after all.

Carter, Trinquier, Maitrejean
Dr Beverley Anne Carter, M. Michel Trinquier, Mr Eric Maitrejean

The award, known in French as ‘Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques’ (Knight in the Order of Academic Laurels) is one of three awards bestowed on persons who are then entitled to become members of AMOPA (the Association of Members of the Order of Academic Laurels). Title holders can rise to the rank of ‘Officer’ and ultimately ‘Commander’. Instituted by French Emperor Napoleon I in 1808, the awards are conferred on individuals deemed to have given eminent service in the field of education and promotion of French language and culture. It is a very prestigious award, Maitrejean pointed out, adding that he was deeply honoured. The last time UWI St Augustine received it was in 1984, when it was conferred on one Dr Denis Solomon and one Mr. Randolph Hezekiah, both of whom were French Lecturers at UWI St Augustine at the time.

In fact, in his reply to the citations delivered by Ambassador Trinquier, Mr. Maitrejean expressed his gratitude to Mr. Denis Solomon, whom he called his “mentor”, and to the many others who assisted him in his personal and professional development. He also spoke of the deep satisfaction he obtains from teaching, noting, “I am not a painter, I cannot show you my work. I am not a musician, I cannot make you listen to my compositions. The only thing I can show you are my students.”

Mr. Trinquier, French Ambassador to Trinidad, who presented the award, was no less forthright, stating that the conferral of the award was a symbol of the gratitude of the French government “for the spreading of our language in this country and more than this, the deepening of relations between Trinidad and Tobago and France.” Trinquier was speaking not only to the proud awardees but to an attentive audience that included their smiling families, some of their UWI colleagues and past students of French at UWI, the Executive of the French Teachers Association, as well as a few members of the Alliance Française.

Dr. Carter, when her turn came to speak, focused not on her research and publications on foreign language learning, nor on her thirty years’ experience of teaching French, nor indeed on the last seventeen years at UWI. Instead, she revealed a love story that started when she was a mere twelve years old and fell “head over heels in love with the French language.” As she detailed how great an impact French language and culture have had on her personal and professional life, one was left with the impression that French had had a part to play in all of her richest experiences.

She is not alone. The St Augustine Campus has also benefited from the generosity of the French Government, the relationship between the two stretching back at least as far as Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence in 1962, when the French Government began assigning a French Instructor to the St. Augustine Campus. (That person’s term of duty was the civilian alternative to the then compulsory military service.) The French Government has also provided support for many UWI conferences and events, donated countless academic prizes, pedagogic and general reading material, funded the Canal Satellite connection in the CLL, given courtesy visas to UWI staff and students for trips to metropolitan France and her overseas departments, and even given financial assistance for immersion trips to Guadeloupe. I asked Dr Carter about French language immersion at UWI.

“The two opportunities for French language immersion are the Assistantship and the student exchange,” she said. The Assistant programme gives second and third year BA French students the opportunity to teach English in a French-speaking territory for at least one academic year. French students also benefit from the student exchange programme, which provides them with the opportunity to travel to a French-speaking country and enrol in courses for a period of one semester or one academic year. Her longstanding involvement in initiatives like these made Dr Carter a fitting choice for the conferral of the French teaching award.

For his part, Mr Maitrejean has long been associated with extra-curricular language promotion activities, both on and off campus, both during and beyond ‘regular’ work hours. When I ask about his involvement in the UWI Annual Inter-Campus Foreign Language Theatre Festival, he tells me simply that he sees himself not as a teacher in the limited, traditional sense, but more of a motivator, what he calls ‘un déclencheur d’interêt’. He’s dedicated a large part of his life to broadening the perception of language learning in the university setting from something heavily classroom-based to something more human, more concrete, more organic, more interactive.

“UWI offers a broad umbrella, a full spectrum, in language learning,” Dr Carter chimes in. “You have the CLL at one end of the spectrum. CLL affords people the opportunity that they may not have had at school to learn French. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the [BA French] degree programme, which is geared to someone who has done seven years of French in secondary school, and who is thinking of specialising in a career which is language-related.”

Dr Carter and Mr Maitrejean do not only represent two ends of a spectrum, but they also work together on the Caribbean Interpreting and Translation Bureau (CITB), one of the most succesful enterprises undertaken by their Faculty. Dr Carter also chairs the CITB Steering Committee, while Mr Maitrejean oversees its day-to-day operations. The CITB was established by the UWI Faculty of Humanities and Education in 2005 in response to increasing demands from the academic community and the business sector. Since its establishment, the CITB has been able to capitalise on the local and international opportunities for the provision of qualified services in translation and interpreting for several state and private sector organisations. The Bureau is situated at the CLL, which is the locus of language services on the St. Augustine Campus, and which is one of the two buildings on the St Augustine campus now outfitted with cutting-edge DIS (Danish Interpretation Systems) equipment, the preferred simultaneous interpreting apparatus used by regional and international agencies.

Naturally, the CITB has benefitted from the number of UWI foreign language students who graduate each year and who invariably look to the Bureau as a pathway for professional specialisation. Students interested in careers in interpreting and translation now have the additional benefit of the UWI Postgraduate Diploma in Interpretation, which recently graduated its first cohort in November 2007, and received dozens of applications for its September 2008 programme.

As these initiatives expand and student populations increase, there are new and different challenges for language professionals like Dr Carter and Mr Maitrejean. But with so many good things happening all at the same time, the labour of love must be easier than ever.

For more information about the BA degree in French or the PG Diploma in Interpretation, please contact Mr Eric Maitrejean, Coordinator, French Language Section, Department of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI St Augustine at Eric.Maitrejean@sta.uwi.edu or (868) 662 2002 Ext. 2032.

For more information about the other French Language programmes at UWI St Augustine, please contact Mr Régis Kawecki, Coordinator of French, UWI Centre for Language Learning (CLL), at Regis.Kawecki@sta.uwi.edu or (868) 645 2278.

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