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Wang Weidong's Montreal dépanneur has turned into a classroom as he learns to speak French.

SARAH MONGEAU-BIRKETT/The Globe and Mail

Wang Weidong’s shop in Chinatown offers the typical bounty of the Montreal dépanneur − lottery tickets, toothpaste, fireworks, an entire wall of snacks and, of course, beer and wine. One recent morning, the store also featured novel fare: French lessons.

Huit dollars,” Mr. Wang said, struggling to pronounce “eight dollars” in French.

Est-ce que je peux avoir un reçu?” said his teacher, Félix Pigeon, asking for a receipt as he stood before Mr. Wang at the counter.

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Mr. Wang was a willing pupil in the expanding frontier of French-language learning in Quebec. As the province seeks to ensure newcomers can work and function in French, it’s increasing funding by $450,000 for on-the-job lessons offered at neighbourhood businesses across Montreal.

In Mr. Wang’s case, that means turning the ubiquitous Montreal dépanneur into a classroom. For two hours a week, Mr. Pigeon, a master’s student in literature, exchanges with Mr. Wang at the counter or between store shelves, doling out French phrases as easily as Mr. Wang dispenses ramen soup and chocolate bars. Customers come and go as Mr. Wang works the cash and gamely tries to grasp the intricacies of French grammar and verb conjugation.

“French is important here. I know that if I want to make my business better, I have to speak French,” said Mr. Wang, 51, who came to Montreal from Beijing two years ago with his wife and now 8-year-old son.

“But I don’t have time to go to school. I have to work.”

Wang Weidong, seen here on Feb. 4, 2019, is a "depanneur" owner who arrived in Montreal as an immigrant a year and a half ago from China.

SARAH MONGEAU-BIRKETT/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Wang’s views underscore a fundamental reality for many immigrants to Quebec: Learning French is essential to building their new lives, but, like Mr. Wang, they’re unlikely to find time to visit a classroom after long hours on the job.

The on-the-job courses have become a success story within Quebec’s vast undertaking known as “la francisation” – the province’s multimillion-dollar efforts to turn immigrants into French speakers.

The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government announced funding this month to expand the workplace program in the city, which is run by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. The initiative began in 2016 with just 30 immigrant merchants; more than 500 are expected to take part this year.

The “students” include an Egyptian immigrant who owns a driving school, a Ukrainian-born waitress at a Greek restaurant, and a woman from Grenada who runs a beauty salon in Montreal’s multicultural Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood.

“For an entrepreneur – someone operating a dépanneur or a travel agency – going to a French class means closing their business,” said Céline Huot, a vice-president at the chamber of commerce. "So we had the idea of bringing the French class to them.”

As part of the $1.5-million program, participants such as Mr. Wang sport a button saying “J’apprends le français, encouragez-moi,” (I’m learning French, encourage me). The message addresses a basic truth in Montreal: Most people are bilingual and tend to switch to English if they sense that a newcomer is struggling in French. It’s part of the daily interplay of language in a city that typically seeks common linguistic ground.

The message on Mr. Wang’s button turns his personal language effort into a shared goal with his customers.

“It becomes a question of pride for the merchants,” Ms. Huot said. “It’s not, ‘I don’t speak French well, and so I feel a certain embarrassment.’ It becomes extremely positive. The whole campaign shows a positive image of immigrants who are making efforts to integrate.”

At a time when Quebec’s “francisation” programs have come under criticism as inefficient, these free courses have brought measurable results: 80 per cent of immigrants who took part progressed at least one level of French after their three-month session.

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And for university students such as Mr. Pigeon, 28, the exchanges deliver their own rewards.

“I’ve travelled a lot and everywhere I go, I’m well-received. Canadians have the reputation to be a welcoming people, so I wanted to be part of that,” Mr. Pigeon said. “I wanted to give back.”

Ensuring newcomers speak French has long been a cornerstone of immigration policy in Quebec, where language is seen as central to the province’s identity and survival. The theme has been heavily promoted by the CAQ government of Premier François Legault, which argues that its 20-per-cent cut to immigration this year is necessary to better integrate immigrants and teach them French. The party has even raised the prospect of expelling immigrants after three years if they failed a French and values test.

Yet despite the “rhetoric” of immigrants posing a threat to the French majority, newcomers in fact overwhelmingly want to learn the language, and 95 per cent of all Quebeckers have a knowledge of French, says Richard Bourhis, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal who has studied immigrant integration.

Immigrants might not have time to study French while they’re struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table, he said, but the will is there. “They all want to give themselves as many tools as possible to make their immigration project successful,” Prof. Bourhis said. “If you’re just patient with them, either the first or second generation do learn French. They want to.”

That is certainly the case for Mr. Wang. When a francophone customer comes in asking for fortune cookies, Mr. Wang struggles to understand what she’s saying. Mr. Pigeon coaches him, then Mr. Wang rushes over to a shelf full of cookie bags.

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Mr. Wang says he now wants to become proficient enough to go beyond what he calls “dépanneur French,” and has his sights set on a bigger goal: His son’s hockey games.

“When the kids play their games, we have to shout,” Mr. Wang says of his son’s matches with the Jeunes Sportifs d’Hochelaga in Montreal. “I can’t figure out what to say.”

He may not find the answer among the lychee jelly snacks and cans of pop in his dépanneur. But he feels the goal is within reach.

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