Friday 4 June 2010

French: I can make myself understood

Like all students in Canada during the 60's, I was required to take French starting in grade 4. Unfortunately, I never saw any reason to learn a foreign language so despite whatever efforts I may have had to put in during 7 years of studying French, I arrived at the end of it without being able to utter anything more profound than Bonjour. In fact, my final year of French, grade 10 in High School, saw me walk away with brilliant mark of 29%.

Unfortunately, at the time I did not appreciate that my decision to drop French would come back to haunt me in later years. I chuckle about it now but the immediate effect of having no foreign language study as part of my high school programme was to find myself obliged to take 2 years of Latin. I will always remember years later when my wife, a teacher, commented on a public school textbook entitled "Living Latin" by saying, "There's an oxymoron for you!"

I'm sure there are several explanations of my total lack of interest at the time however, there must have always been something buried back there because later in life, at the ripe old age of 27, I decided to learn French. Of course, what I did not fully appreciate in making such a decision was that learning a language as an adult is not the same as learning something when you're a child. Others have written more educated studies on this phenomenon but I saw it quite plainly how children absorb, adults learn. For the child, there is a facility in learning which later in life becomes more intellectual, less instinctual and the results of which show themselves as less retention and the need for more repetition. I found it at times odd to sit in a class with somebody considerable younger and watch them progress faster than I could. Odd? No, it was frustrating and at times a bit of a piss off. Ha!

For the next 5 or 6 years I made the effort to learn French but discovered I don't have much innate talent for languages. I arrived at a point where I suppose I could make myself understood but I was in no way bilingual. In retrospect, I was very much just another Anglophone attempting to speak some French but who demonstrated, probably quite painfully, that this endeavour was taken up later in life and if I was to communicate with a Francophone, let's hope the Francophone spoke English.

Well that as that; time to move on. For the next 15 or so years I just stopped. I didn't study French, I didn't speak it, I didn't read, I didn't watch TV, I did absolutely nothing to maintain or develop what little skill I made have had in using this foreign language.

Suddenly, at the age of 54, I decided that I may have made or was making a mistake by throwing away the investment of time and energy I had previously made in learning French. I took up the study, I went back to school and as of this writing, three and a half years later, I have managed to renew my knowledge of the language to the point where I can make myself understood.

Note what I said: I can make myself understood. I have gone full circle and have arrived at the point I had managed to attain years ago: make myself understood. I find it curious to run into my own limits, limits sometimes imposed not only by my physical limitations, my own mental capacity, my innate talents, but my environmental limitations. I live in an Anglophone environment, I am surrounded by English speakers, I work in English and my home life is in English. Other than the occasional vacation in France, other than the occasional event where French may be spoken whether it being a film at the cinema or a class I attend, everything I do, say or think is in English. Unless I migrate to Qu├ębec or France, I see little chance that this situation will ever change. Unlike new Canadians who are immersed in this new linguistic environment, whether it be English or French, my efforts at learning French were always and remain a minor part-time activity in my life. Under these circumstances, I predict that I will never be able to achieve anything more satisfactory than being able to make myself understood. Ah, c'est la vie!


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