My favourite question so far from a Louisbourg visitor – a retiree from West Virginia – had nothing whatsoever to do with the 18th century, or with French colonialism. It went (somewhat awkwardly) like this: “If a young Canadian who speaks English wanted to date a Canadian who speaks French… how would that work?”
The question reminded me of a joke I’d heard recently: “Why is a French kiss bilingual? Deux langues.” But it would have been no use telling the West Virginian that joke; the very nature of his question told me that he was not bilingual, and indeed that he came from a world where bilingualism was practically unthinkable. Ironically, the part of Canada where I grew up was not all that different. If my parents hadn’t pushed me into French immersion at an early age, I would have grown up in the monolingual wasteland that is Edmonton, Alberta. In the west, we mostly think of bilingualism as something that happens to other people, in exotic and faraway places. Like New Brunswick.
I didn’t fully understand the fact that there were French places until, at 14 or so, I accompanied a friend on a family trip to Ottawa. One night, we drove across the river to Hull, a district of Gatineau, Quebec. Abruptly, all the neon signs outside the car window flashed at me in French. We stopped for fast food, and everyone in the car deferred to me – the only one who’d taken French immersion – to order for them. My mind raced. How do you say “French fries” in French?
Then it was France in Grade 8, then France again in Grade 9, and after Grade 12, and then Montreal for a year in my twenties – a truly bilingual city, although that enables a certain degree of laziness when everyone can default to English for you. And finally, this year, lots and lots of France. Every time I’m immersed in a French environment, my hibernating language skills wake up, stiff and cranky, and slowly adjust to my needs. It’s like riding a bicycle, kinda – you never forget how to do it, but you get older and your legs get arthritic, and hey, if someone’s offering to give you a lift instead, why not?
Although I didn’t tell the West Virginian this, the fact is I have dated French Canadians. I’ve snogged with Fransaskois, and made mischief with Metis, and once or twice I’ve cuddled with Acadians. I’ve just never dated them in their language. They all spoke better English than I spoke French. And that’s the most common answer to his question, unromantic and dull though it might be: when two people want to communicate, they tend to take the tongue of least resistance.
When I lived in France, I obviously spoke French a lot, but it was a functional, workaday sort of French: grocery-store French, bank-teller French, and lots and lots of kindergarten-school parent-teacher meeting French. I made some friends, but they were all bilingual; and while at first I sometimes used them to help rub the rust off my second language, we inevitably defaulted to English for all but the most perfunctory exchanges. After eight months, I came back feeling like I didn’t really learn any new French, apart from a handful of France-specific expressions. It’s disheartening to realize you’ve hit your ceiling with respect to a particular skill. How do you say “It’s all downhill from here?” in French?
I would not have been hired at the Fortress of Louisbourg with only one official language in my repertoire. Not only is it a federal government job, but it’s also a recreation of a French fortress, so a lot of francophones come to visit. But I now realize that the biggest reason I didn’t apply to work at Louisbourg much sooner was bilingual anxiety – the fear that my French wouldn’t be up to the task. This year, I figured it would be as fresh as it could possibly get. If eight months in France isn’t enough to whip my tongue into shape, then nothing ever would be.
But then I sort of botched the French test, and got shifted at the last minute from the guides division into the military unit. This turned out to be the best of all possible failures; I would probably have still had a good summer wearing the Parks Canada uniform and delivering tours while driving the long golf carts, but that job isn’t me. I’m an actor, a role-player; I flourish when I have a character to embellish. And it turns out I flourish reasonably well in French, too; in fact, I suspect I’ve learned more new works in the single month since I started here than I did in the eight months previous. They’re mostly words for different parts of a musket, but hey, it’s progress.
It’s a mentally draining gig. Over the course of a single hour, I’ll find myself not only code-switching between 18th century role-acting and 21st century commentary, but also responding to French and English questions, sometimes at the same time. I get all kinds of accents too, from the crisp and articulate Parisian accent to the dreaded Acadian cotton-mouthed drawl. Occasionally I must admit defeat – desolee, je ne peux pas comprendre – and sometimes the visitors will switch to English, with varying degrees of patience.
But just as often, visitors to the site will be pleasantly surprised to find me eager to engage with them in French. Whereas in Lille, my attempts to be bilingual were met with indifference at best, and impatience at worst, the responses at Louisbourg are great for the self-esteem. The other day, one Quebecois family listened patiently as I struggled through the story of the First Siege, nodding and supplying translations when necessary (because of course they speak English too, or else how would they have made it all the way to the windy tip of Cape Breton?). At the end of the exchange, the father squeezed my shoulder and said, “Merci pour le francais.”
In that moment, I revised my answer to the West Virginian. How do bilingual relationships work? Avec patience et effort.