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Learning French – don’t be afraid to take things to the next level (#162)

I received an e-mail not long ago from Derek, a reader in Truro, Nova Scotia.  He wanted to share some of his own experiences and had a few questions.   We exchanged a couple of emails, and he allowed me to post his e-mail online, along with some of my own thoughts on a couple of fronts (some directed at Derek, but others thoughts for a broader audience).   (Thanks again for your e-mail Derek !)

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Original Message:

Hello Brad,

I enjoy reading your blog.   You are right when you say that many people are looking for cultural context to supplement their own French experiences and interests.  I also listen to “C’est la vie” on CBC Radio, but other than your blog and “C’est la vie”, there are not many other places we can turn which are devoted to this subject (at least not in English).

I’m from Truro, Nova Scotia. I am Anglophone, and I went through the French immersion program.  Truro is mostly Anglophone, but it has a few Acadians and an Acadian Francophone school system.  But my French immersion school was a different school system than the Acadian Francophone schools.  So my experiences in and out of school were with other Anglophones.   But now that I’m out of school, I work with Acadians, and I insist that they speak only French with me and not English.

There are so many of us who went through French immersion, and the first generation of the “immersion kids” are now adults, and the second generation is just now also graduating.  By now, there must be thousands of us coming out of the program as adults across the country.   I think only good things are going to come out of this, and it is changing Canada.

My French is already very good because I did my education in French, but my accent can always be better.   People tell me I have a bit of an Acadian accent when I speak.  They also tell me I use many Acadian words which are not used in Québec.   It is probably because of the Acadian influence in this part of Nova Scotia.

I read your posts on different Canadian accents.  It was quite interesting because people don’t ever talk very much about the different accents.  Many Francophones I talk to are not even aware there are so many different accents.  Most people I speak with think there are only three or four different accents, probably because much of the television they watch comes from New Brunswick or Quebec.

My question is this:  Because you have experiences with French in different regions of Canada, and because many people tell me I use many “Acadian French” words, would you have a list of French words used in other regions of Canada?  You gave some Prairie French word examples in your accent series.   I’ve heard there are sometimes different words used in Québec city and Lac St-Jean which are not used in Montreal, Moncton or other places.   Would you have some examples or a list of different words from different areas?  I generally only know Acadian and international French because I have not traveled to other Francophone regions of Canada.



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(My answer, apart from the emails he and I exchanged)

Hi Derek…

Thank-you for your email and your thoughts.  I think you have hit on some great points which would be of interest to a good number of people.

I’ll see if I can come up with a list of different words used in different regions over the next few days.  Often the differences are not very big, and French vocabulary has standardized quite a bit over the past three decades (especially in Québec, but also in other regions across the country).  But there are still some unique regional words and expressions which may be heard the odd time, depending on where you are.

I particularly agree with you that it is quite interesting that the original 1980s & 1990s immersion students are now adults, with another generation not far behind them.   I completely agree that this is bound to have an effect on the country as far as openness and new possibilities (regarding a whole host of issues).

I don’t have the updated statistics, but back in 2000 (15 years ago), the following were the overall percentages of students enrolled in French immersion across Canada (hold your seat… the numbers are quite surprising!):

  • New Brunswick: 32%
  • Prince Edward Island: 20%
  • Nova Scotia: 12%
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 7%
  • Ontario: 6%
  • Manitoba: 6%
  • Alberta: 4% (Go Oilers!)
  • Saskatchewan: 3%
  • British Columbia: 2%

These numbers come from a report published by Statistics Canada entitled “French Immersion, 30 Years Later”

We always hear the usual statistic that there are 1 million “Francophones” (mother tongue) outside Québec.   But really, if you’ve gone through the immersion program, you’re already part Francophone for simply living a huge part of your life in French (at least 7 hours every day during the school years).   It blows my mind that nobody ever talks about those statistics.

Think about it bud !  20% of all Anglophone students in PEI…  4% of all Anglophone students in Alberta… 7% of all Anglophone students in Newfoundland!   Those are mind-blowing numbers.   And these numbers only speak to the students who were still in the school system.   They do not count those of us who are now adults but who used to be in the program (keep in mind the numbers are already 15 years old – so all of those students are now adults, and there’s a whole new wave of students behind them in the immersion system).

If you were to factor in current student numbers, plus graduated student numbers, plus the 1 million Francophones… where do we sit?  2 million?  Even more?  And it increases with every graduation, and every generation.

Another statistic I also like to point out is that for every child in French immersion, there are likely two Anglophone parents who made the conscious decision to ensure that their children became bilingual.  Thus, if you factor in “concerned parents” who are directly involved and devoted to their children’s & Canada’s bilingualism, as well as their openness to Canada’s and Québec’s Francophone culture, the above statistics for people making active efforts to keep French alive and well across Canada balloons to what… 4 million?   That’s a HUGE part of the Canadian population making active efforts – all within 30 or so odd years.  Parents count!   I never would have been part of the first “experimental” immersion group had my parents not taken the active decision to place me and my bother in it (it even resulted in my mother taking French courses so she could understand what my brother and I were saying about her in French when we were kids – hahaha 😉 ).  On this front, I’ve said many times before that Anglophone Canada is not the same country it was in 1980 or 1995.

And then we haven’t even begun to count Anglophones who simply are learning French as part of a regular FSL program (ie:  regular courses in an Anglophone curriculum), or as vocational courses, or as self-taught studies.   They certainly cannot be counted out.  Their efforts should be among those who are commended the most, since they’re the ones who tend to try to go the extra mile — and they’re the ones who have a steeper hill to climb.   Add them to the equation, and that makes for a large chunk of the country.

I can give you an example of how regular FSL and self-taught studies are equally valid and can bear fruit:

In a former life I was a diplomat posted to various Canadian Embassies abroad (I left the government a number of years ago to pursue my own business endeavours).  The first and main operating language of one of the Canadian embassies in which I worked was French (the administration, our internal meetings, staffing, reports, emails, and the language in which we operated with the public and Ottawa).    The diplomatic and locally hired staff therefore had to be fully bilingual (regardless if they were Francophone or Anglophone).  One day we received a new transferee who grew up in a very Anglophone city in Canada (let’s call her Cindy, even though that’s not her real name).   She only started to learn French after graduating high school.  She took the odd course here-and-there in university, but most of her French came from her own studies during her own free time.   I’ll say upfront that Cindy’s French was not the greatest, but she really tried hard, and I think she obtained this particular posting by demonstrating she definitely was the best qualified person for the job (and she was), regardless of rather poor French language skills.   During her first few months at the embassy, owing to a lack of confidence in her own French skills, she would generally only speak English with the Francophone and fully bilingual Anglophone staff.   But then one day something amazing happened which still blows me away many years later.

The ambassador at the time had to make a very important and difficult decision regarding quite a sensitive and delicate matter.   For the most part, he had already made up his mind (rather staunchly might I add) on how to deal with the issue.  Nonetheless, he wanted to call a meeting of embassy staff to seek additional input and to cover any bases he may have missed.   I, Cindy, and several others all met with the ambassador in the meeting room.  After hearing him out for about 20 minutes (in French of course), he then asked everyone, one at a time, what their thoughts were on the issues and if he missed any details before he dropping the gauntlet and proceeded with his plans.   The last person he asked was Cindy.   She understood everything he said (her French comprehension was much better than her spoken French), but when she spoke up, all of a sudden she started to present her views in French.   This was significant, because during any past meetings, she would only speak in English.   Everybody’s ears perked up the moment they heard her try to speak French for the first time.

She completely disagreed with much of what the ambassador said and she wanted to change his mind.   Because she felt so strongly about the issues, she wanted to ensure she had the ambassador’s (and everyone else’s) full attention – and she felt that speaking French was the best way she could ensure she had it.

I’ll be upfront in saying that because her French level was quite low, she struggled – big time – to get her many points across.   The issues were complex, and she needed to talk in great detail if she were to convince the ambassador that her view of the issues and courses of action were the correct ones.   I can tell you that the ambassador obviously did not agree with her, and a bit of a heated debate erupted between the two of them (I’m not sure he was happy that he was being challenged so ardently).  All of us in the room were kind of in shock.  Here was Cindy, who had a very difficult time speaking in French, taking on the ambassador (who’s first language was French) in a full head-on debate on a very complex issue — all in French.   And what’s more, she was holding her own.   She stumbled (quite a bit actually), and had to constantly search for words, but she would not relent.  The Ambassador actually started to speak faster and faster as the debate went on, often cutting her off…  He even tried to switch to English at one point in an effort to debunk Cindy’s points by making his standpoint very clear to her.   But she simply would not relent.   She refused to speak English, and she kept at him in French, giving it her very best shot.    The rest of us around the table gave each other looks of surprise and disbelief.   Cindy was amazing!!   We had never seen this side of her before (let alone see her have the confidence in herself to push her French to the limits when things became heated).

In the end, guess what happened… she won out, and she actually convinced the ambassador to take a change in direction.   She fully explained every one of her points and reasoning (and there were many).  It took a while because of her low French proficiency, but she eventually got there.   We were all kind of stunned!  Not because the ambassador changed his mind – he was a very reasonable man – but because Cindy would not relent and she did it all in French… for the first time ever…  Wow!!

After the meeting, everyone left the room except for me and Cindy (I asked her to stay behind for a second).  There were not many Anglophones working at the embassy, and she was a friend of mine.  I went over to her and told her how proud I was of her — not because she hotly argued with the ambassador for half an hour (I’m not sure I would have done that)… but I was proud that she gave it her best shot in French – which was very uncomfortable territory for her – and that she managed to pull it off beautifully.   Judging from one-on-one comments which were said to me by others over the following days, I think everyone else was also equally impressed and proud of her too (including the ambassador).

Later that evening, a bunch of us from work went out for drinks.  Cindy was there, and she spoke French the whole evening (she never had the self-confidence to try to carry out whole conversations in the past).   For the rest of her posting, she tried to speak French as much as she possibly could at work and with friends (we were in a “semi”-Francophone country and it was generally a “French-as-a-first-language” embassy after all).  Her level of French was much better at the end of her posting than during the first few months when she did not have the self-confidence in herself to even try.

This was a big lesson for me.  It showed me that even if you don’t hail from a childhood in which you grew up speaking French, it truly is never too late to learn.  Even with just an elementary level of French, you can still pull off some amazing feats if you really push yourself to try.   The self-confidence that comes from that takes care of the rest.

There are many Anglophones across Canada who are giving it there best shot.  I sometimes really wish the media in Québec talked more about this because there’s this strange myth (and really, it is a myth) that French outside Québec is static or dead – when reality is actually pointing in the opposite direction (propogated more within fringe elements of the PQ & BQ, but not so much within QS, nor within the CAQ, Prov Liberals, Fed Liberals, or NDP).  It’s interesting because I get the feeling the first two parties are trying to propagate this myth to score political points with the public to take up their causes.    However, this myth can pose a problem if people begin to believe it.  This is a tough one to resolve if several major influential spheres of Québec’s media do not give it due attention.   Fortunately, however, from a media perspective, the tide may be turning on this front too.   The new television station, UNIS (http://unis.ca/) is now being broadcast all over Québec (it went on air in September, 2014).  It’s a Francophone television channel with studios across Canada, devoted to programming about Francophone life outside Québec (it’s quite an interesting channel and concept).  It is owned by TV5 Québec Canada and is designated a category A station, meaning that all Canadian households (everywhere in Canada, including Québec) now receive it.   TFO, http://www3.tfo.org/ (Ontario’s public Francophone television network) is also broadcast across many parts of Québec.  It too gives a more realistic situation of French, Francophone and Francophile realities/changes outside of Québec and across Ontario (many of which I discussed above).   Although these two television stations are not politicial in nature, we’ll see role they play to help debunk the myths about French outside of Québec.

But hopefully this can help to encourage you and others to continue with your own efforts.  It’s not necessary to become fully bilingual.  Just keeping an open mind and learning about cross-cultural tidbits are sometimes more important than anything else, even if you’re not able to hold a conversation in French.  People appreciate the efforts, and you end up feeling a deeper connection with your own country and the world at large   But if you are able to pick up parts of the language, then all the more power to you.

In the end, everyone charts their own course within the limits that time, interest and obligations allow for.   But it’s nice to see that there are millions and millions of Anglophones across the country with an interest in, or who have interaction with Canada’s Francophone cultural and linguistic sphere.   It’s very encouraging – and touching.