University of Alberta: Speech-language pathology grad helps francophone youth find their voice

Planning her career as a speech-language pathologist, Emilie Lefebvre wanted to work with bilingual adults, but a happy whirl of Francophonie Week celebrations changed her mind.

The festivities by an Edmonton school board tugged at her own French-language roots while she worked there on a clinical placement to finish her University of Alberta education, and spurred a desire to work within the same kind of close-knit school system she grew up in.

“The week was all about celebrating francophone culture, people who speak French from various backgrounds from all over the world. We are all very different, but the language brings us together, and it made me realize how important it was to me to go back and work with kids in that community.”

Lefebvre now practices in some of the same francophone schools she attended as a child in Calgary, working alongside her former teachers and principals.

“It feels like going back to family and coming home, to have an impact in the community I grew up in.”

Coming full circle honours her francophone roots, her desire to help people and her science-based education as she graduates this week with a master of science in speech-language pathology from the U of A’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

“I found that pursuing a career in speech-language pathology really brought a lot of aspects of my life together; it filled a lot of gaps.”

Lefebvre works in 15 schools in a southern Alberta francophone school district, providing early intervention to help French-speaking youngsters overcome their speech-related challenges.

“We see children who have more challenges expressing their wants and needs and communicating with others, so it’s really rewarding when you see a child be heard and understood, and be able to express what they want … seeing that relief in their face.

“It’s so fulfilling to be able to give them the tools to access their voice.”

Aiding Lefebvre in her specialized work is the certificate in francophone practice for speech-language pathologists she earned while studying for her master’s degree.

Offered jointly by the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and Campus Saint-Jean, the program allowed Lefebvre to familiarize herself with assessment and intervention materials for francophones, enriching her ability to help her young clients, she said.

“The program put emphasis on linguistic development and norms for French-speaking individuals, and I feel more comfortable in my practice because I have evidence-based data to show when I’m working with the francophone population.”

Research to aid representation
She also focused her master’s thesis on the French speech sound development of bilingual children across the country, helping create reference data for them in Canada and better represent them in the scientific literature.

“I was looking to see if there are significant dialectal differences between regions. There were limited norms for bilingual children across Canada, and I wanted to help build a database for clinicians to refer to when assessing and intervening with those children.”

Her thesis noted that children have similar dialects to adults from those regions, and that different language exposure can affect children’s phonological development. Doing the research gave her a better understanding of the effect different languages can have on children’s French speech sound development.

“I keep it in mind as I assess them.”

Her qualifications also allow her to fill a demand for francophone practitioners, she added.

“There’s a limited number of people who can deliver these kinds of therapies in Alberta, so it’s nice to go back to that community and work with other professionals with similar goals.”

While juggling her studies, Lefebvre also co-chaired a conference in 2020 for Alberta speech therapy students run out of the U of A. Held annually to bring together speech language patients, families and clinicians, the Organization of Alberta Students in Speech (OASIS) event had to pivot online during the pandemic but turned out to be even more successful despite the virtual shift.

“We got to connect with people all over Canada and the United States, even as far away as Vietnam. It was a reach the conference had never had before and it brought together people from different backgrounds touched by speech-language therapy in various ways.”

All of it made for a very busy but rewarding couple of years at the U of A, she added.

“I wanted to make the most of all the opportunities the university offered, to have the fullest experience I could. Things like the conference provide the opportunity to push yourself and work on leadership skills in different settings. I grew quite a bit, and I’m so happy with the way my program turned out, it couldn’t have been a better setup for me,” Lefebvre said.

“The experiences allowed me to be working where I am today.”

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