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With so many languages out there, which one(s) to learn? (#378)

With so many languages out there, how can one chose which one(s) to learn?

This is one of those never-ending questions that you hear others endlessly ask themselves.

I personally do not think there is a right or wrong answer, but perhaps there are better answers than others.

I was lucky that I had both English and French from almost the beginning.  Yet I realize that others in Canada do not necessarily have the opportunity to receive a footing in both languages so early on and at the same time.

However, I too had language-learning experiences with other languages as an adult.  In addition to the above two, I dabbled in four others, exploring whether or not I would like them, and if I would find them useful.

I studied and used Chinese for many years (in fact the majority of my adult life), I studied Arabic for a couple of years, I gave Spanish a shot for a couple of years (a few lessons, but mostly concentrated on reading the news for a year), and I gave Portuguese at shot at the same time as I tried Spanish.

Yet, I dropped Arabic owing to the fact that it would require a huge continued effort (a part-time job in and of itself) – time which I simply did not have owing to the fact that I was already concentrating on Chinese and my career.

I also dropped Spanish and Portuguese because of a lack of time.  Yet I was happy with the progress I made within a year of studying them.  My French gave me a huge jump-start on Spanish and Portuguese.  It allowed me to rapidly make progress in reading them (to the point that I do not have many difficulties when reading a newspaper in Spanish or Portuguese).    I’m cool with that, and I don’t have any burning desire to take them further.

What langauge(s) would I recommend to Canadian Anglophones who wish to learn a second or third language?

As I said above, I do not think there are right or wrong answers, but there perhaps are better answers than others.

First and foremost, I recommend you learn what interests you.  If you do not have an interest, you will not feel stimulated in your studies, and it simply won’t fly.

The unique situation with learning French in English Canada:  

Yet, if you’re Anglophone in Canada, I would recommend you explore French before looking at other languages.  You have more French language-learning materials and cultural references available to you in Canada than for any other languages – making French an easy(er) moving target to tackle than other languages.

At the very minimum, you at least would be able to rapidly come to the conclusion whether or not French interests you for continued studies.

Building on this, it is sometimes easier to take an interest in French than other languages because, contrary to other languages, you can consider yourself to be learning “your own” language if you take the plunge with French.

Because French is one of our country’s two languages, as an Anglophone Canadian, you would not be learning a “foreign” language.  You are able to immediately embrace the fact that you are learning your country’s own language.  You can claim ownership over it, and be proud of learning and speaking it.

At the end of the day, you can say “This too is my, and my country’s language”.  Other languages do not afford you that “feeling” (learning languages and emotions are closely linked… You have to feel good and proud about what you learn).

French also opens the doors wide-open to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian right from the beginning.  If you can attain an upper-intermediate level of French, you should be able to quickly learn to read the above other languages within a year or so.

Beyond French, I would also consider the following options in deciding what language to tackle:

  • Do I still have an interest in other languages, and which one?

Even if you are interested in a little-spoken language, such as Latvian or Faroese, you still may be fascinated by the learning it.  Thus why hold back if that’s what you get off on?

  • Do I think I would use it often?

Most Arab-speaking people I know who (or those who I am likely to run into) already speak English or French.  Therefore I felt it kind of negated the “need” for me to learn it, and my interest sort of dropped off.

Yet in the case of Chinese,  most people who I would be interacting with (and do interact with) in Chinese would / do not speak English or French.  The need for me to speak Chinese has always been there (for personal interactions, career, and relationships).

From my travels in Mexico and South America I quickly came to the realization that most people there also do not speak English or French – hence making it obvious to me that Spanish and Portuguese would be useful languages to learn.

  • What resources are available to learn the language?

If I were to suddenly find myself in a love-affair with Dzongkha (the national language of the country of Bhutan), that may be fine and dandy.  But if it were impossible to find find comprehensive learning and practice materials in Canada, then it would make the task all that more difficult.

In the end, owing to a lack of available materials, I could end up wasting precious time (perhaps years and years) learning the language, whereas I could have possibly mastered another “material-ready” language in half the time.

These are just my few thoughts on the issue.

Again, for those in English Canada, I would certainly encourage you to at least explore French as a list-topper.  It will open a billion doors for you in Canada (employment, full participation and a feeling of cultural ownership over your own country, travel and relocation opportunities, etc, etc.).  In addition, it will make learning many other languages much easier.

I firmly believe that knowing other languages has afforded me more opportunities than any single university degree could have ever afforded me.  I would have never done what I have done (or what I am doing) without having both English and French.

Adding a third language on top of that (Chinese) pushed the global-envelope open even further.

Hopefully this helps to serve as a bit of encouragement in your own language-learning adventure.   Sometimes it takes hearing about others’ stories to help find that little bit of extra “footing”, “context” and “incentive” in the realm of language learning.


You’re trying to learn French, you can read a bit, but it still sounds like one big garble. What to do? (#343)

You’re trying to learn French, you can read a bit, but it still sounds like one big garble.  What to do? 

Boy, this is one I have heard a lot over the years.  It seems to be a definite point of frustration for a lot of people.   The problem with language courses (in school or elsewhere) is that people learn from textbooks without being immersed in French.

This means that if a native French speaker were to write out a paragraph stating their thoughts, many learners of French could read and understand it.

But if the native speaker was to “say” the entire paragraph, at regular speed,

  • it would catch the learner off guard,
  • it would be too fast with too few breaks (to allow time to process what is being said), and
  • it would sound like one big, long string of gibberish.

This is 100% natural, and it’s not something to be ashamed of or to get discouraged at.

Learning a language is like learning four different school subjects.  And just like different school subjects, your mastery of each, and your grades may be different for each one.

Your (1) reading could be very good it it (perhaps at an intermediate level).  But your (2) writing and (3) speaking may be at an elementary level.  And, as is often the case, your (4) listening skills (ability to distinguish what is being said) may still be lagging a little bit.

How can it be that you are at a different level for each?  Well, it is possible because you may have not had equal amounts of practice for each of the four language “subjects”.

  • Reading is often the easiest because we can do it anywhere, anytime (and it is emphasized in classrooms).
  • Writing is also drilled into students in the classroom.  It may take a little thought, but writing affords us the time.
  • Speaking also may not be too difficult if students are afforded the time to pause and collect their thoughts as they speak.  The speed at which one speaks can be controlled by the speaker.  Also, there are lots of little “shortcuts” when speaking (such as slipping in easier substitute words if the desired word isn’t necessarily on the tip of your tongue).

The odd one out is listening.  Drastic improvement often comes from regularly interacting with Francophones.

But what happens if you do not live in an area where you can regularly interact with Francophones?  That’s the big question, and boy, it’s a clincher.

Yes, listening skills can be improved by listening to television and radio programs.  The problem with TV and the radio is that the language spoken is for fluent native-French speaking adults, using vocabulary for fluent native-French speaking adults, at a (fast) speed which corresponds to that level.

The garbled jumbo from listening to fast-paced, advanced French can leave students frustrated, discouraged, and feeling they are not making progress (even when they are).

One way to counter that is to listen to children’s programming.  But seriously, what mature adult or student of French would actually enjoy doing that!?!  I’d rather be hit by a manure truck than have to watch Tele-Tubbies in French or any langage!    (I’d shoot myself!!!  And I’m sure you would too).

These are problems I sympathize with, precisely because I had the same issues when I as learning Chinese.  So I get it, I really really do.

An easy solution which could work for you, with fast results

When I was learning Chinese, and before I moved to China (and completely immersed myself in Chinese for a few years), one thing that helped me develop an ear was “slow news in Chinese”.

I recently found out that Radio France International (RFI) offers something similar for French.

RFI is France’s public broadcaster to an international public.

On their website, they have a “learn French” section.  Within that section, they offer numerous tools and exercises for learning French.

One such tool is an “Easy French” (français facile) daily news broadcast.

The daily newscast is spoken in a slightly slower-paced French, with better enunciation, and regular pauses between sentences and even words.

Even better, RFI offers online typed transcripts of the newscast to allow you to follow-alone.

To top it all off, you are also able to download the newscasts in an MP3 format for your iPhone or MP3 player.  You can also print the transcripts.  Therefore you can rewind, fast forward, read along and practice your listening skills anywhere, anytime.

It is really too bad that Radio-Canada does not offer such a thing for Anglophone Canadian learners of French (ironically, CBC Radio Edmonton offers something very similar in English for immigrants to Edmonton, using local Edmonton newscasts.  But it offers nothing in French, and I can’t find something like this anywhere else on the CBC / Radio-Canada platforms elsewhere in the country).

Here’s what to do

The driver plug-ins seem to work best in Internet Explorer.  I say this because the RFI broadcast plug-ins repeatedly fail for me in Chrome.

1.  Open Internet Explorer.

2.  Go to the following RFI website:


3.  In the middle column you will see the following:


It basically says “Understand the News — The Easy French Newscast: A newscast which presents you with the news, using simple words and which explains events in context.

Hey, what more could you ask for!?!

4.  You have three self-explanatory buttons (Read, listen and download).  Again, the listening and downloading work best in Internet explorer (not in Chrome).

Voilà!!  You now have a way to practice your learning skills at a pace and level which should shoot you light years ahead.  And the best thing is … IT’S FREE AND INTERESTING!!

But why stop there !?

If you go down by one more block, you’ll see the following:


It is a box which says “The words of the news:  A two-minute, stimulating segment which enlightens you on a word or expression which you will hear in the news”

So not only can you improve your listening skills with RFI’s simple French, you can also increase your vocabulary.   In the above example, today’s chosen word is “MAIRE” (Mayor).

1.  If you click the word “Maire” (or whatever word you have on your screen), you’ll get the definition and a little story about it.

2.  Clicking “Newscast” will play a news story using the word in question.

3.  Clicking “Read” will give you a transcript which you can follow along with.

But wait, there’s more! (Now I sound like an infomercial!!!)

Being the ‘lil go-getters that they are at RFI… Boxes further down offer you listening exercises.  You can listen to audio tracts, and are then prompted to answer questions about what you just heard (by checking off multiple-choice answers).


And below this is a whole series of French learning materials for teachers to present to their class.   You may also be interested in the materials.

They include:

  • Dossiers pour la class:  Materials which let you discover various areas of French culture.
  • Outils:   Which gives you more audio exposure
  • Fiche pédagogique:  Which provides you with exposés on various cultural tid-bits.
  • L’Actu de FLE:  More ways to learn in context.

Wow!!  This should give you lots of practice which you perhaps never would have otherwise had.  Take the time to check it out, and bonne écoute !!!

P.S.  Am pretty proud of ya for stickin’ with it!  Keep up the good work (the good stuff in life may not come easy, but sometimes is worth fighting for)

A little bit of insight into Québec’s unique “Culture for Children” (#341)

You might say that this post is “childish”, but that is exactly what I am aiming for.

(A note to readers outside Canada:  this post contains cultural references which are likely more familiar to Anglophone Canadians than to people outside Canada).

My last post on the small Francophone town of Debden, in northern Saskatchewan, was no accident.  In this post you will see why.

For those of you who grew up in Canada’s Anglophone experience, as children (from the time of birth to the age of perhaps 10 or 12), you were surrounded in a world of “Canadian pop-culture for children”.

It didn’t matter which of the 10 provinces or 3 territories you lived in – the experience was very much the same for children across the country (which is an amazing feat considering the distances involved).

  • Kids across the country played with the same toys (Mr. Potato head, Jenga, Star Wars action figures, My Little Pony, cabbage patch dolls…)
  • We listened to kids’ music which our peers listened to (The Chipmunks, Sharon, Louis & Bram…)
  • We watched the same children’s movies as our peers (Bambi, Snow White…)
  • We watched the same children’s television programs (Canadian Sesame street [which was somewhat different than the US Sesame Street], the Smurfs, Paddington Bear, Fraggle rock, The Friendly Giant, Polk-a-dot door…)

Of course, different ages had different pop-cultural references(toys, programs, and songs for a three year old toddler would be different than for a child 8 years of age).

But the experiences were generally the same for children who grew up in the same age bracket as you.

We can group such references from three different angles.

(1)  International children’s culture shared by children across borders (the Smurfs are Belgian, Paddington Bear is British, Fraggle Rock was a tri-way British/American/Canadian produced program, Snow White is American, etc).

(2)  National children’s culture (Polk-a-dot door was specifically Canadian, as were Sharon, Louis & Bram, Degrassi Junior High, The Friendly Giant, table top hockey toy sets are almost a uniquely Canadian-used toy, etc.)

(3)  And then there is localized children’s culture. I can offer you some of examples.

I remember as a young child playing with toy logging equipment when I lived in Northern B.C. (Yup!  Toy logging trucks and toy chain saws as I imitated what I saw around me in Terrace, BC).

Later, when I grew up on the Prairies, I recall I used to love to play with toy farm sets.  Around age 8, I would play for hours with my toy tractors and animals, imitating what I saw on the farms around the areas we lived.

(As an adult, I play with motorbikes… but they ain’t toys – hahaha — but on second thought, I suppose they are!).

I have friends from the Atlantic Provinces who tell me they played with “fishing” toys as children, such as toy fishing boats, nets, and toy lobster cages (It makes me wonder what toys kids in the far Arctic play with).

But have you ever wondered what children’s pop-culture might be like for children in Québec?

Many of the references I provided above are “English-language” references.

Granted, many of the international references exist for children in Québec, as they do for children elsewhere in Canada and in other countries (translation of Disney movies, the Smurfs and Tin-Tin from Belgium, Babar from France, Barbie Dolls, Star Wars and Superman action figurines, etc.)

Yet for Francophone children in Québec, many of the children’s pop-culture references at a “national level” are different from those of Anglophone Canadians.  In Québec there was no Polk-a-Dot Door, no Mr. Rogers, no The Friendly giant, no Sharon, Louis, and Bram.

Children and adolescents in Québec (and Francophone children elsewhere in Canada) grew up (and continue to grow up) with unique pop-culture references such as

  • Watatatow (sort of like a “Saved by the bell”)
  • Ramdam
  • Bobino & Bobinette (there’s an oldie for you!)
  • Sol, le clown (another timeless classic!)
  • a Québec version of Sesame street entitled “Bonjour Sésame”

Now for the shocker!

(Buckle up, because you might fall off your chair with this next one)

Over the years, when people in Québec have found out I have family roots in Saskatchewan going back generations, what do you think one of their first reactions and comments to me were?

Think about it for a moment…

Come on, what do you think it might be?

Perhaps a reference about the flatness of the Prairies?  The cold Prairie winters?  Wheat fields?  Come on, think hard…

Hint:  It’s not about being to continuously see your dog running away in the distance three days after having lost it…

I’ll give you one more second to think about it…

(Trust me when I say you’re not going to believe this one!)…

Can’t come up with the answer?  In fact…

One of the first sure-fire comments I routinely receive from Québécois when they discover my Saskatchewan roots is…

“Oh! Saskatchewan! That’s where Carmen Campagne is from!!” (I bet you didn’t see that one coming!)

Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that statement in Québec… !!

I’ll make 2 bets with you:

Bet 1:  If you’re Anglophone Canadian, you likely have no idea who Carmen Campagne is.

Do you know who Carmen Campagne is?  If you do not, that means that many cultural aspects of the Two Solitudes remain alive and well (as you can see).

Bet 2:  I would venture to say that most people who grew up in Québec, and who are anywhere from 0 to 50 years of age knows who she is (they have either grown up listening her, or have had children who have grown up listening to her).  Likely there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Québécois whose first thoughts turn to Carmen Campagne when they think of Saskatchewan.

In fact, because there are so many Québecois who may know who she is, it is quite possible that in terms of real numbers alone, Carmen Campagne could be one of the most well-known Saskatchewanites outside Saskatchewan (and possibly in the world).

How is that for a jaw-dropper for you !!  (Hello Two Canada’s Two Solitudes!)

Carmen Campagne is a French language children’s singer & entertainer.  Perhaps the closest Anglophone Canadian equivalent would be Raffi, or the singers from the group Sharon, Louis and Bram.

Now you can see why I wrote yesterday’s post on Debden, Saskatchewan.

In the last post, I specifically wanted to emphasize that there are many towns and villages all across Saskatchewan with significant Francophone populations (as I’ve said before, everything in this blog all weaves together to give you a much broader and more complete portrait of Québec’s culture, its place in Canada, Canada’s Francophone culture in general, and often how it relates to Canada’s Anglophone realities.  (Funny how different posts keep “bumping into each other”, isn’t it?)

She is a Fransaskoise (a Saskatchewan Francophone) children’s singer and quite famous in Québec and all across French Canada.

She is from the Francophone town of Willow Bunch in Southern Saskatchewan – South of Moose Jaw

(BELOW is a map of the French sub-accent zone in Southern Saskatchewan which encompasses Willow-Bunch).

So Sk 4

For Francophone children in Québec, she is part of their childhood memories.  The songs she sings are part of Québec’s children’s references when growing up.

This is not only an example of Québec’s own culture for children, but it also serves to show how Canada’s overall Francophone society is tied together (across provincial lines).

Just as Anglophone adults might make quip remarks among themselves regarding their own childhood pop-culture references, such as saying “That guy’s beard is as white as Papa Smurfs”), adults in Québec also make everyday remarks regarding their own childhood references;

  • That lady there looks as sad as the clown Sol”, or
  • “Hey!  I told you to turn the radio to a hit-music channel… not something like Carmen Campagne!”

Children’s culture, for any society, eventually becomes part of our adult culture.  It is what makes a society unique, and reinforces societal bonds of having “grown up together”, and “experienced the world as one”.

It’s interesting, and it is something I feel more Anglophone Canadians should be aware of.

I’ll leave you with a couple YouTube videos of some of Carmen Campagne’s songs.   Now, you can also say you’ve experienced a little piece of what Québécois (and Francophones across Canada) have collectively grown up with as children 🙂

Portrait of a village: Debden, SK (#340)

Radio Canada International (RCI) is Canada’s public “international broadcaster”.

It’s sort of a smaller version of Canada’s equivalent of BBC International or Radio France International (RFI).

It falls under the umbrella of CBC – Radio-Canada, but it does not broadcast within Canada.  Rather it broadcasts to all corners of the globe.   It seeks to tell Canada’s story to the world.

This also includes many stories pertaining to Québec and Canada’s overall Francophone nature.

Here is one such story… The story of the Francophone village of “Debden“, North of Prince Albert in Northern Saskatchewan.

I’m providing this report to you because Canada’s Francophone communities outside of Québec often share many cultural traits and realities with communities within Québec – which, together, weave Canada’s overall Francophone nature into one pattern from coast-to-coast.

If you are working to improve your French, the following report is spoken in international, standardized French, albeit with our own homegrown accent.  The speed and accent in the report should be relatively conducive for language learners (one of the main reasons I chose to present you with this particular report).

Click the following link to listen to the 10 minute report from Radio Canada International:


As an aside, I added a little bit of information about Debden and its particular French accent in the post on Prairie & Western Canada French Accents (click the link).


(Photo Above:  Centre communautaire de Debden)

(Video Below:  John Arcand is quite a famous Francophone fiddler from Debden.  This is one of his songs)


A map of the French accent zone in which Debden is situated (You’ll see it on the right hand side of the map, near the top of the highlighted towns, a 2:00 hour drive straight North of Saskatoon)

Maritime population / community distribution based on language (#339)

An interesting map of population and community distribution based on linguistic lines (mother tongue) in the Maritime provinces.

It’s a bit older now, but the overall Maritimes population distribution has not changed very much since 2001, so it could still be considered reliably accurate.

I marked the credits on the map and added it to the post on Acadian accents as reference.

Pop dist Ac 1