Canada: A language for lovers

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 29 18:19:03 UTC 2007

   Sunday* » *July 29* » *2007
    A language for lovers
    *John Ivison* National Post
Saturday, July 28, 2007

 It's always nice when someone takes an interest. A group called Canadians
for Language Fairness has been following my odyssey into the French
language, and they've been wishing me frustration and failure at every turn.
I thought I was immersing myself for three weeks in the Saguenay so I could
order a meal in French and not have the waiter respond en anglais. It turns
out the whole exercise is a benchmark for the success or failure of official

According to CLF's Kim Mc-Connell, if I fail to speak French like a native
Quebecer in three weeks, it will prove that learning a language as an adult
is impossible, thus reinforcing the CLF line that we should make all the
francophones speak English instead. "If someone of his intellectual calibre
finds it difficult, how would the rest of the population manage? ... Instead
of proving that the policy [bilingualism] is a viable one that could serve
the purpose for which it was invented -- i.e. unity -- it could prove the
opposite. That's my hope anyway," she wrote.

In reality, all Ms. McConnell's Internet post proves is: a) she's never met
me, or she'd understand I have only a nodding acquaintance with the English
language and no chance of becoming bilingual in under a month; b) she's
seriously misinformed -- three weeks is too short a period to make any
serious evaluation of a person's linguistic abilities, immersion or not. The
elementary course is designed to give students the foundations of French
grammar and an ability to ask and respond to simple questions. Even after
three weeks here, a conversation between two francophones remains for me a
flurry of liaisons and elisions that defy translation -- they might as well
be talking in Swahili.

I was told that French should sound like a lilting Strauss waltz and
complained at the end of the first week that it was more akin to the white
noise of Metallica. By the end of week three, there has been some progress.
Now it reminds me more of a modern Bob Dylan concert -- odd moments of
clarity when you recognize a classic, bookended by a monotonous drone. Yet I
don't consider my inability to understand a fast-paced francophone
conversation to be a failure. The past three weeks have given me the
building blocks of language -- basic grammar, vocabulary and verbs in the
past, present and future tenses -- that will allow me to become functional,
if I invest the time and effort.

The contention of Canadians for Language Fairness that fluency is limited to
those who grew up in a French environment is a crock. I have gone from
bumbling imbecility to being able to hold faltering conversations in three
weeks, while those who began at an intermediate level are now able to
converse with some confidence. I hope--and anticipate-- that by the end of
the year, with half an hour or so of French on my iPod every day and weekly
lessons, I'll have progressed to that stage.

The immersion program has proven the perfect environment for making steady
gains -- for a precious three-week period we have been able to concentrate
on the single goal of acquiring a second language at the expense of all the
other distractions of life. Our group of eight beginners (curiously, three
from Whitehorse) formed a tight band that moved forward at a uniform, if
languid, pace. This was the country of the blind and there were no kings or
queens. Similarly, on the home front, living and conversing with a local
family encouraged experimentation -- it was that or three weeks of
embarrassed silence over souper. By week three, my hosts, Gilles Cormier and
Guylaine Boulianne, have become ( j'espere) good friends and our
conversations more textured than the basic questions I had struggled to
answer on arrival.

Perhaps the best lesson I have learned in the Saguenay is to forget about
targets. This region has a language and a culture that is interested in more
than just getting from A to B-- equal emphasis is put on the quality of the
journey. "It's all about creating colour and atmosphere," said my teacher,
Martine Bastien. "The language can be very romantic. Everything is pink and
baby blue."

Take one example. After an evening of strenuous research in the bars of
Jonquiere,Gilles might have said I looked the worse for wear. Instead, he
told me: " Toute la nuit est dans tes yeux" -- the whole night is in your
eyes. Or another -- as we watched the red sun set over an empty bottle of
Cote du Rhone, I was told the French say " coucher du soleil" -- the sun is
going to bed. The language doesn't operate in isolation -- the Sagueneens
seem to enjoy life in the same way they rejoice in sketching mental pictures
with words. People laugh, love, eat and sing without inhibition, in a way
that would horrify the uptight anglos from the language fairness faction.

In a week where my father had to deliver the most heartbreaking news to his
son, it helped to be in a culture that takes the philosophical approach, "
c'est la vie." In Voltaire's words, life may be a shipwreck, but we
shouldn't forget to sing in the lifeboats.

jivison at

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