Monday, October 20, 2014

Montreal in a day and the benefits of bilingualism

This weekend was a whirlwind. On Saturday, my beloved husband and I attended an Archdiocese of Toronto Marriage Preparation Facilitator workshop, which was excellent. On the following day (Sunday, October 19, 2014) I was awake at 5:30 in the morning and on the road by 6:00 a.m.; my destination was Montreal, with my 74 year old father and 77 year old mother to visit her older brother who is currently in hospital. The plan was to drive to Montreal, visit my uncle, and then drive back, all in a single day. This was challenging but not impossible. I am accustomed to long periods of driving because my husband, kids, and I go to Baltimore every summer and we take the car. Bringing a lot of CDs to play and packing sandwiches and drinks help a lot. What I didn't realize would also help a lot would be my skills en français.

I haven't been to Montreal in a very long time and I remembered it as a very Anglo city, but I noticed that French is very important there and more frequently used that my memory indicated. My kind colleagues (Farah Wadia and Dean Roberts) gave me great directions and we also relied on the GPS. Although there are many bilingual signs, all of the street signs are in French only. This actually caused me to miss an exit when I asked my father if the GPS had said "ouest" or "est" because I didn't hear it the first time, and he couldn't reply quickly enough because he didn't know the words. There was a lot of construction near the hospital and when we were walking out the parking garage exit, a security guard stopped us to tell me, in French, that the way we were travelling towards was out of bounds. Thankfully, my spoken French was sufficient enough to ask for guidance and he pointed us in the approved and correct direction. I quickly learned to ask "Tu préfères l'anglais ou le français?" Sometimes it was French, sometimes English, and sometimes my choice. At one point during our visit, I tried to go back to the car in the parking garage to collect some things, but the level we chose was inaccessible via the regular elevators due to renovations. I found some construction workers and had to explain: "J'ai perdue ma voîture. C'est au quatrième étage mais je ne peux pas trouver mon auto." Although my French might not always have been grammatically correct, it was good enough for people to understand and respond accordingly. No one laughed at or insulted me for substandard speaking.

I loved French in school. I'm so old that when I was in elementary school, French wasn't mandatory until the intermediate grades, and I remember doing a self-initiated French commercial for Pac Man cereal at an assembly ("Chomp chomp, delicieux!"). I took French all through high school and was in the French Club with Mme Stamp (who taught me about the delicacy of bacon and cream cheese crepes). When I went to university, I selected English as my major and French as my minor. However, in my second year, I had a professor that convinced me that I could not speak French. After that year, and despite receiving a B in my French course, I changed my minor to Humanities.

Club photo from the BPCI 1989-90 yearbook. Yes, we're wearing berets.

I'm really sorry that I didn't continue my French lessons. I've taught Core French Grades 4-6 (without my AQ, but that's another story) and my experiences in Montreal yesterday taught me that even my rudimentary French speaking and reading abilities are helpful; it would have been even better had I persevered with my studies. Knowing another language has very clear benefits - I may not be able to articulate why studying calculus has helped me in my life, but I can sure explain why knowing French has been beneficial. At my school, I'm trying to pick up a few phrases here and there of Mandarin and Cantonese so I can connect with some of the parents who do not speak English. My students are fortunate to know not one, not two, but three languages, and I hope they continue lire en français, ecriver en français, et parler en français.

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