Excuse My French, or, It’s Hard to Know What You Don’t Know

The person who speaks two languages has two souls — Charlemagne (perhaps)

1974: the school stood at the top of the Gulch Hill. The windows on one side faced upper Placentia Bay, from which you could see the Islands—Bar Haven, Woody Island, and just a touch of Sound Island—that once were populated by many of the people, relocated and now parents of those at the school. The windows on the other side afforded a magnificent view of the Harbour, looking straight across at Brigades Beach, where it was said a brigantine had come ashore a century before; most of the crew dead or dying from, what, smallpox maybe. Even then you could just make out the rows of tiny humps—probably graves—that lined the grassy barasois separating the salt water from the three-sided pond just beyond. Some said—and even do today—that the pond hid ‘the Frenchman’s gold.’ Through any window you could see the steady progression of fishing boats. Some coming, loaded down with the day’s catch, others heading out; anticipation. Still others could be seen, if the time was right, busily prosecuting the industry that had sustained not only that community, but, arguably the whole province for centuries. Longliners, punts, skiffs, flats even dories; the crew hauling gill nets or lobster pots. In the skiffs, out the western side you might even see the crew working with a cod trap. The sounds too; the putt-putt of the make-and-break or the dieselly rumble from the larger boats, punctuated here and there by the intermittent sound of a power saw or the steady rhythm of a hammer. Today we have YouTube to bring us the iconic sounds and sights of the times. In the mid 1970’s, from that vantage point, the real world provided high-definition sights all set to a background music of the daily work.

It was a complete distraction from the daily school routine, to say the least. Small wonder, then, that the general feeling amongst the student population was, “What do we need all this for? Our parents and grandparents didn’t need school. They had fishing. Besides we’ve all been told: the fishery is the future; it can feed the world and there’s plenty of it; always will be. I can’t wait until mom and dad let me quit so I can get out of here.” Predicting the future; such an exact process.

Our class had Mr. Paul for the first time that year. It was not his first year at our school. No he’d been there two or three years before then. He’d started a floor hockey league at the school; something everyone loved. He was busily building ice hockey too—something that would have a profound effect on so many, but that’s another story. He taught French and he was passionate about it. He was not the loud, aggressive type, though. Quiet determination and confidence—that was it.  On that first day, there he was, beginning the routine that became so familiar over the next four years. He went to the chaulkboard and methodically erased every bit of it. Next he fixed his chaulk holder. With that done he turned and faced the class with the most unique expression—how, exactly does one’s eyes twinkle when the expression is otherwise serious? On that first day he explained why French was important and ended by reminding us all that he would expect us to do a little extra work because that’s what it would take if wanted to be successful. On every subsequent day, the class would also begin with him looking at some student in the class, “Bonjour ___.”  …and having a conversation drawn thematically from the previous day’s lesson. Not a single student ever baulked when it was their turn. Participation was expected.

Mr. Paul was so very right in so many ways. Yes, it took a little extra work. Learning French was something that took an effort; you had to listen, speak, read and write. Learning French didn’t just ‘happen.’ He was also right in his methods—promoting active participation and blending a whole host of techniques: conversation, reading and writing, drill & practice, using the listening centre, role play. On and on. He was also right in his initial assertion: learning French is important, but it requires effort.

It’s worthwhile also noting that people did not spend much time taking in that awesome vista from the windows either. That hockey-loving, bilingual core-French ambassador from Ottawa, in his quiet, unique way, was able to capture and transform a whole class of people so otherwise intent on a fishery-dominated past and a future that was not going to turn out in keeping with their expectations…

But time goes on—that was almost forty years ago.

Just the other day I overheard several French teachers in conversation at a coffee shop. The tone of that conversation was not nearly so rosy. They shared stories of how difficult it had become teaching French in junior high. Many students, boys in particular, were completely negative in their attitude toward the subject. Not only did they not take it seriously, but, worse than that, there seems to be an over-riding attitude that learning that second language—French in this case—was something that was just not worth the effort.

And, no, I don’t spend my time eavesdropping on others in coffee shops. I was simply seated nearby, ostensibly reading this month’s Wired—which I bought—in case you are wondering! It’s just that, while Wired is awesomely interesting, the conversation among a group of passionate, intelligent people is far more so!

Yes, potentially a depressing discussion, but the overall conversation was not negative at all. Rather, the teachers seemed to have rather a strong resolve. You could easily tell that they certainly took the whole thing seriously even if so many did not. The general tone of the conversation was actually more of a ‘keep strong’ session. Once the negative stories were out the thoughts turned instead to the many success stories and how they should be held up as models; examples of how it goes when it goes well.

But the negativity is there. You see it everywhere: at home, at work and often even in the media. It often comes out in forms like these: French is so boring. It’s for girls and besides girls are better at languages. What do I need it for? My ___ didn’t speak it so I don’t see why I should. Look at ___ (s)he doesn’t speak a word of French and look how successful (s)he is. You only need French if you want to work for the Feds and I have no intention of doing that. Besides English is the universal language, right. Everyone needs to speak English, and I do–perfectly.

Beneath it all there is a smug self-confidence. “I don’t need that garbage,” is the underlying thought, “I’m just fine without it.

Two things: Thing One—all of the italicized statements in the paragraphs above are falsifiable. Thing Two: that self-confidence is not warranted. It’s of same stupid clueless origin as, “Trust me, the ice is thick enough,” and “Don’t worry about me, I can handle my liquor. I’m actually a better driver when I have had a few.”

That’s the thing. It’s not about gaining a few extra points on a job screening. While that is no doubt important, everyone knows that there are many other ways of getting brownie points, many of which are much easier to do that actually buckling down to task of learning a second language. Anyone can honestly increase their job prospects in ways they find personally meaningful. They could, for instance: train more and harder to hone existing skills, gain totally new skills, take on more responsibilities, volunteer, network to meet more people, on and on. Language is one way but not the only one. It’s certainly not, by itself, a convincing argument for why we should spend hundreds of hours pursuing a difficult goal!

That’s not to knock language learning as something valuable in the world of work. Of course it is important. After all, look at this quote, which actually appears around 600,000 times on the Internet, as least based on a Google search it does.

A man who knows four languages is worth four men.” – Charles V (possibly)

Who can argue with a person, often referred to as “the wise.” More interestingly, he also reputed to have said, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.” ☺

All kidding aside, though, there is so very much more to learning a second language than just padding the resume for a job that you may or may not actually want at some point in the undetermined future. Perhaps this is what Charles V said in his second quote (if he did, indeed say it. Nicholas the great is also reputed to have said it. Maybe neither did—it’s a great quote anyway!)

Here it is: our language is part of our window to the world. It’s the sieve through which our sensory information is run. The way we experience the world is actually guided by our language. Another language, therefore, offers the possibility of a whole new way to experience the world; a new way to interpret what we experience; alternatives to the way in which we communicate.

It’s such a pity, then, that second-language learning seems to be getting such a bad rap. Yes, of course it’s true that governments, both provincial and federal, offer many programs and opportunities to all. These, however, are undermined by individual and group efforts on so many levels:

  • Parents who openly speak so negatively to their children about the value of second-language learning: “I never used my French and I’m just fine. I can’t see it being much good to you.” Well how do you really know this when clearly you never gave it much of a chance. As good as you may be, perhaps you could have been better. Besides, the world our students will live in is not the same as the one we currently inhabit.
  • Bosses and co-workers who fail to encourage bilingualism. “What do we need that for? We’re doing just fine.” Perhaps, but you are just letting go of a huge global market.
  • Leaders who fail to promote second-language learning. “That’s great but we have other priorities.What’s the point of training workers and building an economy if they have diminished markets to tap into, and are bound to lead less fulfilling lives as a direct and indirect result.
  • Citizens who often treat those speaking a different language as somehow, ‘other’: “That crowd in Quebec are so hard to get along with. When we defeated them on the plains of Abraham we should have made them all speak English from that point forward, then we wouldn’t have this mess” Oh my, where do you even start with that one. Yes, why don’t we just make sure we wall ourselves off from all the non-English-speaking people in the world while we’re at it. <<sarcasm>> Have you ever been to Quebec? It’s not called “La Belle Province” for nothing! That sentiment applies to the people too.

So there it is and was. Following the Canadian Centennial and right through the Trudeau years we built a collective understanding that ours was not only a bilingual nation but, increasingly, also one that celebrated multiple cultures and languages. Our eyes were turned to the future and outward to the whole world. Increasingly, though, those eyes have started to turn back inward. We have grown comfortable in our mostly English-speaking communities and have lost sight of the simple fact that these times are just a blip. This, too will pass. For the moment, English-only communities can survive economically. For a time, people can get by–kind of. That won’t always be the case. Ours is a time where change is the only constant. Demographics, the economy, values—everything is changing. Simply accepting that knowledge of one and only one language will be sufficient is an act of trust in the future that is just not warranted.

Besides, who wants to have one soul when you can have many?

Last summer my youngest son spent 5 weeks in attendance at St. Charles Garnier Institute in Quebec City. From July to early August there he was, 17 years old and temporarily located 1500 km from home in the heart of French-speaking Canada. Five weeks studying French and experiencing everything that breathtakingly beautiful city has to offer. What an amazing time he had! Each time he called or messaged home he spoke at length—in French, of course ☺—about the wonderful things he had just done, seen and heard. When he arrived home after the experience he was clearly a better person; he had grown in more ways than can be expressed: more mature, responsible, perceptive and, yes, his French was better too.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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11 Responses to Excuse My French, or, It’s Hard to Know What You Don’t Know

  1. leamuse says:

    A wonderful post! How right you are. We never know what lies ahead, what opportunities we may have to pass on or make less of because we did not have that “golden ticket” of another language. I did not have the opportunity and that had something to do with pushing my kids to learn another language. Happily they all have a second language and some more. Now in middle-age, I find myself struggling to learn french. The reading came easier but my tongue struggles unmercifully. Imagine, five years ago I sold up in California and moved to the south of France. The only thing I would change is if I had been able to learn the language in childhood, the best time to learn it. I spent a lot of time in Western Canada as a child, visiting my grandmother and working for relatives.
    Last night I attended a lecture (of course all in french) titled: Les Wisigoths…c’est notre histoire. I was surprised that I understood as much as I did. It was done as a Power-point presentation so I could read most of it. Yet I still struggle with much I would like to say.
    Keep spreading the word and thank you for visiting one of my blogs. I was glad you enjoyed the post about the vendange.
    Bon courage et bon chance!

  2. I’m from a Welsh-speaking community in North Wales, one of the places in the world where a minority language is growing. My Welsh links me in to who I am – even when I write in English, the thought patterns, culture and spirituality of Welsh profoundly influence how I express myself. I write in English – but in my heart I speak in Welsh. In speech I swop between the two languages, depending on which one is right for the context. I need both to be who I am.
    I also speak German – useful now my brother has married a German lady; My father is profoundly deaf, so we use a bit of BSL; I speak a little Dutch and Swedish – the languages of my closest friends; Norwegian and Italian – also languages of close friends. Conversations when we all meet are held in a wonderful jumble of languages, full of joy, laughter, and appreciation of each other. And no, we don’t stick to English, even though we all speak it!

    • That is so very interesting! I am reading this now for the second time and in the intervening period I have done so reading on students who study several languages early in life and switch fluently between them. In times past they were dismissed as not having much of a firm grasp on either one. That’s changing! Now those students are being see for what they really are–sophisticated communicators who use the best labguage and mode for the application. ‘They’ are ‘you’.
      “In my heart I speak Welsh” …and I have noticed that much of what matters most to you, on your blog, is in … I had thought it was Scots Gaelic … but now I know better.
      Thank you for this comment.

      • Well, you might find the odd word of low scots or scots gaelic in there – my mum comes from the scottish borders, so an occasional one may slip in… but you’re right, mostly it’s Welsh!

  3. tskraghu says:

    Here in India, we learn 4 languages: The national language: Hindi, the state language: Marathi in Maharashtra, mother tongue (for me, Tamil) and of course English. In the senior classes, it is Marathi, Sanskrit or French, etc. May be that’s our problem?

  4. Odyssey says:

    This quote is very nice, is it accurate though ? Good luck with French ! Here in France we start learning english at 12 then another language (spanish, german and now chinese or russian) is mandatory at 14 in high-school.

    • Not really sure about its accuracy. Before posting it I tried to do a little digging and found that there’s some controversey about who actually said it…or whether it was actually said at all :>)

  5. Awesome post! I don’t understand people who knock language education. It really makes life more interesting, and studies have shown it makes students better at other subjects. So much of the cool stuff in my life happened because of languages–I’d hate to deprive those possibilities to anyone else.

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