Transforming Francais

“If you wish to continue in English, press one. Si vous voulez continuer en français, appuyez sur le deux…”

As I start packing in real life, I’m simultaneously unpacking the implications of this rare situation in which I’ve found myself: “Sabbatical” comes from the same root as “Sabbath,” but instead of one day of rest, it’s a year. And it’s not exactly designed for “rest” so much as “refocusing.” Academics take sabbaticals to engage in deep research, unburdened by the distractions and stresses that come with teaching and admin. But it gets even weirder in my case, because I’m not the academic in the mix, I’m her plus-one. So I get the rarest of rares—a year free from any responsibilities, except for my family obligations (husbandhood, fatherhood). From other people’s perspective, I might even be shirking my responsibilities by following SKC to France—but we’ll get into that eventually, he said with trepidation.

“Taking a year off” isn’t totally unheard of, if you occupy a certain social class, with a certain amount of privilege, and especially if you are a certain age. But that age is more like 21 than 41. And I already did take half a year off, between high school and undergrad, back around the invention of fire. And guess where I spent that half-a-year? France, mostly. Three months spent studying French in Reims, followed by a few weeks of backpacking with my then-girlfriend.

Even if you came of age in circumstances that completely prohibited that sort of trek for yourself, you’re probably familiar with the trope. Backpacking in Europe is the rite of passage for the North American upper middle class kid, and I fit right into that niche.

Whereas a year in Europe, at 41, equals…what? I’d say mid-life crisis, but wouldn’t I have picked someplace warmer for that? There’s no map. The closest trope I can locate has to do with my vocation—as a writer, I am occasionally expected to depart on eccentric sojourns in exotic locales (the last one was Sackville, New Brunswick). The goal is either to amass inspiration for my next masterpiece, or else simply to isolate myself in order to produce said masterpiece. But all of that masterpiece talk is, frankly, terrifying, so when people ask me what I’ll be up to while I’m living overseas, I usually eschew the writing issue altogether and just say, “Practicing my French.”

This is, as it turns out, a weirdly acceptable answer for a Canadian, despite the proximity of Quebec, or the presence of Acadian culture right in my own Maritime backyard. We are an insecure culture, which a recurring need to latch ourselves onto other nations, often long after our symbiotes have washed their hands of us. Thus, when I was first studying in French (back before fire), if I told someone local that I was Canadian, they’d get confused: “Vous n’êtes pas déjà bilingue?” Well, yes, I am bilingual. Or was. Or am. Just like a Facebook relationship that’s also probably none of your business, it’s…complicated.

My parents had no French at all, but my mother, who knew/knows all the right moves, enrolled me in a French-language preschool as soon as she could, while my post-natal neurons were still malleable enough to acquire two mother tongues. As it turned out, French was more of a sister tongue for me—the nun who taught our preschool was called Soeur Édithe, but for many years after, my mostly Anglo brain contorted that into “Sarah Deet.”

From Sarah’s one-room schoolhouse, I rocketed on to immersion elementary at Laurier Heights, a school named after a French prime minister but situated deep within the white Anglo Protestant wilds of Edmonton’s West End. And here things get fuzzy, because all of my distinct memories from this period involve English conversations, so either I was a terrible French student, or it was a terrible French school. Or maybe (and for some reason this seems like the likeliest explanation) my brain has overwritten those exchanges—translated them for my nostalgic viewing pleasure, turning French playground taunts into English ones so they’d sting longer, and so on.

Whatever the truth, I was transferred out of Laurier Heights in sixth grade, because Mom determined at that point that an English Academic Challenge programme was more useful to me than a French non-challenging environment. She was right again, but it only took one year without French to lose my confidence, and even though I got decent grades in high school French classes, I never considered myself fluent after that. Certainly, I had very few occasions to practice French outside of a classroom. Even when I got to visit France (twice in my adolescence, even before the extended trip to Reims), I wasn’t engaging fully with the language; I was a tourist, and a teenage tourist at that, and nobody expected anything of me.

Mom bankrolled the three months in Reims. She also backed my resolve to move to Montreal after my undergrad. She knew that a bilingual Canadian had better employment options, and more facility with travel. She didn’t give up, but somewhere along the line, my brain started searching for the easiest way out of any linguistic situation, and French was almost never it. It’s not that I can’t speak or understand French. It’s more that I don’t.

Inevitably, I now want for my son what I sort-of-had-but-didn’t-ever-really-manage-to-get: fully confident fluency in our two official languages. Right now, X is almost five, and has spent the last year in a French preschool—see the pattern? But a year in France…surely that will break the cycle of indifference (vive l’indifference!). Surely X will return from a year of true immersion with the French language irreversibly implanted in his brain?

By now, I know enough about parenting to know that the only sure way to teach is to model the results you want to see. So it circles back to me: am I going to be a tourist for a year? Or am I willing to engage fully with French, to show X how it’s done, and to prove to myself that what I still have is worth keeping?

Parlez-vous français? Why or why not?


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