March 24, 2011

Language Lessons

Canada is known as a bilingual country, but the working ability of most western Canadians to speak French is limited at best.  We all take French in school, most of us learning to conjugate a few verbs and to ask for directions to the bathroom by the time we graduate.  Some lucky kids, like my friend's daughter attend French Immersion schools in the nearby city where her mom travels to work each day, but most do not.  I knew a lot more French in high school than my public school friends because I went to a Catholic elementary school where it seemed to be more of a priority. My children are presently not even able to take French classes beyond their Grade 11 year; there simply is not the demand in their small public high school.  It is sad, really, that in our school system it has to be all French or almost nothing.  I believe that if we are to call ourselves a bilingual country, then a language program should be just as important as any other course in school.  I suppose I have felt that way for a long time because I continued to take French in college.

I was not the greatest French scholar, but I loved to speak it, even coming third in a regional high school French speech contest.  I wrote my speech on Vancouver's Expo 86, which I had been a part of for a week with a teen theatre group, putting on a play with an anti-nuclear message two or three times a day at the British Columbia Pavillion. 

During my second year of college I had the opportunity to participate with my class in an exchange with another college in Sept Iles, Quebec.  By the time I was in college I had been on an airplane only once and had never been east of Kenora, Ontario, so the prospect of an exchange was exciting.  Each college would host the other for two weeks, and Sept Iles came to us first.  We hosted them in Kootenay style, took them sledding, on sightseeing bus tours, etc., and introduced them to our friends at the college. I designed a t-shirt for our exchange with a circle logo of snowy trees, mountains and two gold stars above them to represent our two colleges.  Some of our guests spoke English very well, many telling us they improved their skills by watching English daytime dramas, but others, like my guest, spoke very broken English and would translate directly from French.  We would laugh together when she said things like, "I have to go at the bathroom for to makes the peepee."

And then it was our turn to go to them.  We flew out of Castlegar sometime in March and landed six hours later in Quebec City, where we met our exchange partners with whom we stayed in a motel for two nights.   We got reaquainted with each other, exploring the beautiful old city and eating in a restaurant with an interior sign which translated as, "Get ready to unbuckle your belt".  Someone told me that the sign used to say, "If you can eat it all, it's free," but they started having to give away too many meals and wisely changed their tactic.  Coming from a health-foodie background, I was not enamoured with the heavy, fat-laden Quebecois cuisine so I mainly ordered 'le club sandwiche, s'il vous plait', which came heaped on a platter surrounded by pomme frites (french fries).  I rarely ate a third of it, and I'm no bird. 

Quebec city is very much like any old European city, I would imagine.  The buildings in Place Cartier are over four hundred years old, made of stone, and are beautifully heavy with history.  Although the sidewalks were slushy and the ice on the St. Lawrence river just beginning to break up, we had good weather which contined when we travelled by bus along the frost-heaved road to Sept Iles.  Although a bit carsick I was still able to take in the scenery along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, which was dotted with characteristic Quebecois stone farmhouses with steep pitched rooves for the snow. 

I do not remember much about Sept Iles itself.  Translated, it means Seven Islands.  I remember taking a helicopter trip over the islands but the day was cloudy and wet and the scenery snowy and monochromatic that time of year.  I remember going to various houses and socializing in a combination of broken French and broken English, and I remember that my host family lived southwest from Sept Iles along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in a small town called Port Cartier, so we did a lot of driving.  Unlike in the larger cities and the Anglophone neighbourhoods in Montreal, the people of the towns up the St. Lawrence were completely French speaking.  My host family spoke to me only in French and I struggled to understand their patois.  We went to a large Catholic church for Mass on Sunday and I was happy to see they had all the French lyrics up on the wall via an overhead projector, so at least I could sing along.  I think everyone knows that it is one thing to have conversations in academic French with teachers and fellow students, and quite another to speak the language with dyed-in-the-wool locals in a small region of France or Quebec.  My host family was wonderfully kind and generous to me.  My host student, Nadine was a gentle soul with an equally gentle mother, a twinkly-eyed father, and a shy younger brother.  When we all gathered at the breakfast table I watched in barely guarded astonishment as Nadine and her brother devoured sugary cereals and buried their toast in caramel spread.  "Would you have any peanut butter?" I asked.

The sweetness continued when we spent a glorious sunny day at one family's elegant summer cabin on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  There we partook in the famous Cabin au Sucre, or Sugar Shack, which is the traditional celebration of the sugaring off of the maple trees.  We pulled hot maple taffy and put it down in the snow to cool.  We ate ham glazed in maple syrup (delicious), and Les Oureilles de Christ (ears of Christ) - eggs fried in lard and smothered in, yes, more maple syrup (not my favourite dish-and not only due to its off-putting name).  I put my hand in the icy Atlantic gulf water there and I remember we bought fresh prawns from a fish shop on the wharf.  The prawns were boiled whole with their roe attached, and my new friends showed me how to pull off their shells and eat them by the bagfull while we walked along the wharf.

At that time in Quebec a language bill was a major bone of contention and the idea of separation from Canada always hung in the air; I know there was a small degree of tension between our groups because of it. As the two weeks wore on, the topic would come up more often from our French hosts and we would struggle to understand.  Fortunately, our French teacher was a wonderful, understanding woman, and she did her best to help us figure out what the issue was all about.  To remain a distinct society within Canada, our French-Canadian friends wanted to do everything in their power to keep their language the dominant one in their province, and I had no problem with that.  Quebec did feel like a bit of a different world to me, but I was open to its differences and only wished my French were better so I could take more in of its culture.  On our final evening together in Quebec our adult leaders held a debriefing session with us.  We were each to give our impressions of our experiences in our own language, which would be translated for the benefit of the whole group.  Some of us took the chance to air our political concerns regarding the language bill, while some of us made tearful Academy Award-type acceptance speeches.  Instead of being a time when we should have focussed on the good that had come of the exchange, it quickly descended into dangerous territory.  I was one of the last to speak.  I don't remember much of what I said, but I think I expressed my frustration at what I thought was the wrong approach for our last evening together as a group.  I remember voicing my concern that instead of taking away all the fun times we had learning how much we were alike, and the progress we had made in bilingualism, we were in danger of parting from the experience with a bad taste in our mouths, and how unfortunate that would be.

The next morning we all went to the airport and said our goodbyes.  The tension had lifted somewhat and the good will had mainly returned.  One of the French-Canadian students came up to me and in an expressive manner, made a long speech to me.  I did not know her very well, but she had hosted a party at her parents' opulent home. She was very pretty with sleek dark hair and a genuine thoroughbred elegance about her.  As she spoke to me in rapid French, I worked very hard to try and get a grasp on what she was telling me.  She kept stopping to ask if I understood, and I would say yes, (but only every third word).  When she was finished her speech she gave me a firm hug and kissed me on both cheeks.  I understood enough to know she appreciated how hard I tried to speak French at all times when in Sept Iles, that she appreciated what I had said the evening before in the debriefing session, and that she was expressing warm feelings toward me.  Although I was dying to know all she was telling me, I just didn't have the heart to tell her I could barely understand a third of what she was saying.  I think I felt shame in that.

When I got married a few years later, my husband's French was so much more limited than mine that he used to tell people I was practically bilingual.  I wish I were.  It is a beautiful language, and I could get by in a restaurant or reading signs, but of course, that is not enough.  I am saddened by how little French my children are taught in school and that the initiative to gain bilingualism in Canada is mainly up to the individual.  Many federal jobs require proficiency in both languages (to my mind the reason for the funding of French Immersion programs by the government), the cereal box on the kitchen table has ingredients listed in both languages (and often in Spanish as well), and the bank machine asks if you prefer your service in French or English, but that is about as far as it goes out here in the west. Even if my French were perfect, I wouldn't have much of a chance to use it.

In Switzerland, much of the population can speak French, Italian and German, but then Switzerland is a much smaller country than vast and expansive Canada.  The distance from here to Quebec could encompass much of Western Europe, I believe.  Canada is also a multicultural country and in British Columbia it may seem more useful to learn Cantonese rather than French.  It is also true that many immigrants have a hard enough time learning one of the languages of their adopted countries, let alone two, and First Nations people are relearning their own languages.

However, if my experience in Quebec taught me anything, it is that we have to work harder and smarter for a sense of national unity.  In short, we have to learn to speak each others language, whether literally or figuratively.

The above photo was found here.


  1. While the UK isn't a officially a bilingual country even though we do have English, Welsh, Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Cornish and Scots to greater or lesser degrees, never mind the immigrant additions, we are internationally notorious - and shamed - for not speaking more than one language as of course the attitude prevails that 'everyone should speak English'.
    It's sad that like you we seem unable to encourage and sustain much higher levels of language education - it's one of the great beauties of humanity that we do have so many different languages we could use to bring us closer together rather than keep us apart. {I worry that just as everything else becomes standardised that we will end up losing much of the rich variety - and heritage - language has to offer and the British 'English or nothing' attitude will carry the day or rather the street level gangsta equivalent that seems to be the norm in every communication medium these days}
    As for me, my schooolboy French comes to the fore when we go there on holiday and even now in my fifties I get pleasure from using it and from the realisation that it both generates door-opening understanding and appreciation from natural speakers that you're willing - even if not completely able - and shows a healthy respect for them and their heritage. I've felt that even given a foreign language isn't so easy to take on later in life {allegedly} with a reasonable amount of time spent completely in another culture that bilingualism is the natural state of affairs.
    Gabrielle is of Swiss-German descent and speaks the language fluently. When we go and stay with family even though the younger generation speak English pretty well, we {I} speak in the local language and use English only as a support to understanding. Over the twenty years I have been visiting I've come to understand much of the accent and local dialect and while I can't always converse in German I can usually follow the jist of a conversation. Her older relatives don't speak English so are grateful that I try to get through in theirs.
    I've also experienced being abroad with relatives who only speak Englsh and will not try to speak the language of the country they're in and found it hugely embarrasing and disrespectful when they simply spoke more slowly and more loudly to try and get the locals to speak English or even worse, expected us to do all the communicating for them. No matter where I go I try to learn a few phrases even if it's only 'Hello, nice day, thanks, or sorry - I don't have any Spanish/Dutch/Portuguese/Italian/Polish/Czech or whatever' A smile and a few phrases get you a long way and is a good start.
    Only one of my neices and nephews speak a foreign language {also German} and this at a very basic level though hopefully this situation will improve as they get to an age where independant travel nears. I remember my neices shock when she was trying to do homework on a visit and proudly spoke a few words of newly learned German to us only for Gabrielle and then speak to her in German as she had no idea we spoke anything other than English.

    As you can tell from the length of the response I found this a great post on an important topic. Thanks for sharing it.


  2. Picture what you have posted was excellent to watch.We all know that people speak french language in canada.

  3. Alistair: It is great to read all your thoughts on the issue. Thanks! My friend, Stefan took his sons to Germany recently, to visit family. He was very upset to see that most signs were now in English. I do like your approach to travel, and when I read about your relatives speaking loudly and slowly instead of trying to say anything in the language of the country they were visiting, I thought of that great film/play, Shirley Valentine, when the Brits are in Greece and want to carry on eating Chips and Egg instead of trying something new!
    Cheers, and please tell Gabrielle she would have lots of Swiss Germans to speak with here :)

    Letters: thanks for dropping by! I forgot to mention that the photo is of Quebec City, and the dominant building is the famous Chateau Frontenac.

  4. For a language to survive in the context where there is a far larger cultural grouping in or next door requires two things. A siege mentality bordering on the paranoid but certainly militant and a critical mass. Wales is a case in point where of all the Celtic Nations those with the voice is increasing year on year. Ditto Cornwall/Kernow. Where the invasion of the English from the 80's onwards caused ire across all class when they bought up housing in villages for summer homes thereby killing the villages stone dead.

  5. I remember that language bill when all signs in Quebec could only be in French, but in Ontario it was bilingual... The legislation, understandably, raised some ire. Many children in our area take French immersion from young and get to learn the language much more fully, I think.

  6. Rebecca, it took me thirty minutes, because I had to pause to make lunch for a hungry son, pause to help my sister and her new baby into the house and out of the rain, and pause to re-boot the computer because my husband turned it off when I "walked away without turning the computer off," but I have visited and I have read a whole post, and I am even at the "big computer" so I can comment.

    It is ironic then that I have nothing to say. Any comment I make about bi-lingualism would be tainted by my views about living in a state being over-run by ILLEGAL immigrants who speak only Spanish and always will, as students in out schools, as employees in our stores, and patients in our emergency rooms. The last gubenatorial race in California featured a televised Spanish-only debate, though neither of the candidates spoke Spanish (while they have several low paid employees who do). The issues are complicated and different in your country than mine.

    Having said that, and putting the notion of a bi-lingual country aside, I think your trip east sounds lovely, and it was nice of you to be polite to your hosts, no matter your opinion. How tacky to go into someones "home" and then tell them how they annoy you. Not the time or place, I think.

    I hope to be back soon.

  7. Thanks for reading this awfully long post. Yikes! I'm handing out medals now to my faithful friends...anyway,

    Wales and Cornwall sound similar in their approach to Quebec. Acutely observed, mon ami :)

    Paul: My sister in law in from Ontario and I believe her French is very good. Their daughter is in French Immersion and the two of them speak French all the time. My brother does the best he can.

    Tracey: Have you seen that movie: 'A Day without a Mexican'? All the Latinos in California are abducted in one day by aliens. Chaos, panic, and comedy ensue. I loved it, and it gave me a look into how things are down there. Do you take Spanish in school? My friend lives in Utah and her husband is a Spanish teacher there.

  8. I was just going to say that I'd been to Quebec City when I was in my early twenties; and that trying to tell a waiter in a small diner to "pop" the yolk of my fried egg was like trying to read War and Peace or something. Not a bit of French do I speak. :)

    Buuutt...after reading all the "deep comments" from your other readers, I'll just stop at the egg experience and reflect on what you and the rest have said.

  9. Oh dear Rebecca, I hope you don't think my comment was in reference to the length of your post. As such. It is just my life that makes it seem so. But, you are worth it. :)

    I have not seen that movie. You say it is funny. I suppose it could be. Or it could be quite ugly. It is so complicated and maybe this is not the place for me to say anything. I don't blame a single person for coming here. It is illegal, but no one is trying very hard to stop them. If they think these a better life, I can not begrudge them that. But it is so expensive to our society. It puts in a lot, but it takes out a lot. Especially in California. Illegal immigration is really changing the nature and culture of the place.

    As a friend of mine put it, BC is the new Seattle, Seattle is the new California, and California is the new Mexico. Funny because it is true?

    Maybe I should email these comments. :)


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!