Harmonizing Across Many Languages

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Harmonizing Across Many Languages

Ken MacLeod, President of New Brunswick Youth Orchestra & Founder of Sistema NB


At Sistema New Brunswick (NB) on Canada’s east coast, we’ve recently faced a unique challenge with broad implications: How best to integrate students of disparate languages into one program? What began in 2009 with one centre and 50 children has grown to over 1,200 children daily, in ten locations, all learning and playing orchestral music. Until September 2019, however, all of these students worked in their own districts, using their own languages.

New Brunswick is officially bilingual, French and English. About 40% of the population is francophone. Schools are divided into francophone and anglophone districts. Anglophone districts operate in English but offer French immersion programs; in contrast, francophone schools operate only in French, due to a strong belief in preserving the language and culture of a minority population. First Nations communities, separated for generations, operate on-reserve schools.

In the words of Swan Serna, composer, violinist, teacher and Director of the Sistema NB Centre in the rural fishing village of Richibucto: “We started to have a nice problem. Some of the kids in the [First Nation] Elsipogtog program here could play at a more advanced level that the others…they needed more opportunity [than their limited site could provide].” Nearby anglophone children also needed an advanced path. Could it work to create a joint program that combined anglophone, francophone and First Nations students?

We decided to combine children from four francophone communities, students from Elsipogtog First Nation, and French-immersion anglophone students from Rexton into a single program in Richibucto. Certainly, there were naysayers. But the larger issue was language. Bilingual operation was not an option, as the New Brunswick experience is definitive—when the majority language is in use, virtually all interactions default to that language. Our way forward was simple enough, on its face: we had to operate in French.

Though we incorporated French lessons for 30 minutes before each session—primarily for the Elsipogtog First Nation students, who had never been immersed in the language—most of the language learning came during rehearsal. As Sistema directors know, working with kids makes it easier to bring people together. Children quickly overcome barriers that adults find insurmountable, and the bonds they forge can change the landscape of a space. As educators, we focused on a few key ideas in order to help the transition.

  • Movement is a central component of both language and music. So teachers used gestures—the same gestures that we teach students to make as they play and perform—to convey meaning. Teaching artist Dulce Alarcon says that the first thing she did was to teach key words used in the orchestra and feedback words, in French. “I accompanied the words with a gesture, so the kids would not only learn the word by ear, but would also have a visual representation of the word.”
  • Never assume that anything is obvious. From the beginning, we had careful consultation with lots of people—parents, school leaders, community leaders. We started informal conversations. In this way, we established expectations for our children that enabled them to rise to the occasion.
  • Repetition and common practice are key. We used these to emphasize that the students were all part of the same program. The children from Elsipogtog already knew the expectations, routines and ideology from their after-school program in Richibucto. In acting out their usual routines, students felt free to bring elements of their own culture to the session. The solid foundations of El Sistema helped students connect with one another through their work.

There were immediate signs of success. One of the most moving moments was at the end of the first day, when a child from Elsipogtog First Nation called out, “See you tomorrow, new friends.”

Since then, says teaching artist Marisol Segura, “We see them every day enjoying learning a new language. Francophone kids often sit next to First Nations kids to help and support them. As soon as they begin to integrate some French phrases into their vocabulary, they are praised and encouraged to speak.”

We are so grateful to our community for taking what felt like an unusual risk to provide new opportunities for their children. The benefits have been inspiring. Our children are thriving; by the end of the term, all of them had new friends, and many children had picked up some Mi’kmaq vocabulary as well.

“The crown of the season for me was the concert on December 4,” says Swan. After only three months together, 90 children performed for more than 450 people. “All the different communities, enjoying a happy moment, sharing this magic—that’s the power of music.”


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