From Winnipeg to Montreal: how I became (almost) bilingual

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

As a child raised in a monolingual home, I was fascinated by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God imposed a multitude of languages ​​on mankind. I was also obsessed with tourism books, mostly for the lure of other countries, but also because the books had pages of translated phrases. I loved how these phrases could morph from pedestrian to glamorous baroque in response to the exoticism of travel. “I want a hotel room with a single bed” could become “I want a room with stairs” or (my favorite) “with a chandelier” a few lines later. All these necessities and unlikely luxuries were then translated into another language (“Je voudrais une chambre avec un lustre“). I was impressed. Here was a whole universe of touristic and – by extension – linguistic decadence that I knew nothing about.

As a student in the Winnipeg public education system, I wanted to explore this further and signed up for 15 minutes of optional daily French classes. These were based on memorization. I don’t mind learning how to actually build your own set. Memorization was everything. The first three sentences in the first textbook read: “Good day sir“; “Bonsoir, madam“; and “Comment allez vous, Mademoiselle?So far, it’s good. It looked like this bilingualism thing would be much more applicable to everyday life than the chandelier-obsessed travel books had suggested.

But then it got more surreal. In the last few lessons, one of the phrases to remember was, “Ah, oui, je me rappelle maintenant, c’est lui qui est dans la marine(“Oh, yes, I remember now: he’s in the Navy.” The “Ah” struck me as deliciously Gallic and refined.). Winnipeg is geographically as far from an ocean and seafarers as possible, yet still in Canada. By the time I was 18, I could rattle off hundreds of these phrases: everything from prosaic announcements that I was going to the store to buy spinach, to how to deal with naval officers, to fancy lighting fixtures in distant hotel rooms. I felt wonderfully bilingual and cosmopolitan.

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And then I moved to Montreal. Armed with years of 15-minute French lessons, I expected Montreal to be a place where I would feel completely at home (“supplement chez moi,‘ after one of my memorized sentences). But it was only 24 hours before I realized how few conversations could be sustained through memorization. Of course, “Good day sir” and “Bonsoir, madam‘ proved useful. However, a large number of the more detailed sentences I had memorized turned out to be unhelpful. Inserting memorized remarks about spotting sailors or ordering chandeliers into conversation proved a challenge at best. Meanwhile, everyone else (or so it seemed) spontaneously babbled on with carefree abandon, usually on a fresh subject, leaving me behind. The resulting humiliation ended my willingness to speak French in public.

It all ended when friends took me out to celebrate my birthday. At the end of a night of bar hopping, I was so drunk I was gossiping around in badly broken Franglais. Thrown to the winds of self-confidence, I constructed my own (often incomprehensible) sentences instead of regurgitating memorized ones. What a concept! After that night I have never regretted it. I had gone beyond the point of linguistic shame and survived to tell the story in both of Canada’s official languages ​​(more or less). Gradually, painfully, haltingly, my French improved. But it was a multi-year endeavor that is still a work in progress.

There were moments of toe curling humiliation along the way. A companion at dinner laughed out loud at my pronunciation in a crowded restaurant. A romantic interest who, whenever I spoke French, would clasp his hands to the sides of his head and plead, “Stop! You’re hurting my ears!” (To be fair, this was someone who could walk into a room full of people speaking an unfamiliar language and engage in rudimentary conversation after speaking to them for just 20 minutes I had never been so jealous in my life.) To further complicate matters, I acquired a strong Joual accent, vocabulary, and slang that elicited mystified responses on visits to Paris—something my already weak self-confidence eroded. One day a respectable, elderly Parisian lady with a lace collar and gray hair tied in a neat bun expressed her open contempt for my attempts to explain this in Quebec: “Bon jour‘ can be used both on arrival and departure. She let me know in no uncertain terms not to say, “Bon jour“if you meant”Goodbye,‘ and did I understand what she said? (“Me comprenez-vous, mon cher monsieur?‘) But a barrier had been broken. I had a real tête-à-tête with an authentic Parisian grande dame, in a language I wouldn’t have dared to argue with a native speaker just a few years ago. She still thought I was an idiot, but that was okay. A great triumph had been achieved.

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Years later I still haven’t reached the plateau of true bilingualism. I converse in five of the eight French tenses, but the Pluperfect, Past Anterior, and Future Anterior are terra incognita and shouldn’t even be attempted while intoxicated. On the plus side, unlike Winnipeg, Montreal has a port, so there was hope that “Ah oui, je me rappelle maintenant, c’est lui qui est dans la marine‘ might have occasional applicability if wittily inserted into conversation at the right moment. And I’ve reached the point of thinking in French a while ago, which makes things quicker and less tiring. But I have accepted that absolute bilingualism is forever beyond my reach.

Actually, I don’t care (“Je m’en fiche“). The level of bilingualism I’ve achieved through years of sweat and embarrassment has made me empathetic to those who speak a language other than my own. The way sentences are assembled, words chosen, and phrases arranged tell me that language conveys broader views of how native speakers position themselves in relation to the rest of the world. It is an enriching phenomenon: oral communication as an open window to share the lived experience of someone from a culture other than my own. All in all, for me, memorizing has nothing to do with speaking French anymore, even though – in my heart of hearts – I will probably always have a soft spot for the mysteries of Francophone sailors and French chandeliers. So life is.

Brian Foss lives in Ottawa.

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