How French was my Canada?

When I was younger I had big dreams of moving to Canada and at one point I had this fantasy that I would end up studying at McGill in Montreal because of it being a bilingual city. I was very interested in French speaking Canada since their experiences were so relevant to Irish speakers in Ireland. The biggest difference of course was that the French speakers in Canada, just like the Catalans in Spain, were winning the seemingly unwinnable war and gaining ground back from the world language that surrounded them.
Although my views on the Irish language were always informed by political nationalism I have never been a supporter of a monolingual identity in Ireland or anywhere. The beauty for me has always been in the ability to wear different hats competently. The theory of a multilingual country where the speakers of the different languages were competent and confident in the other national languages always appealed to me but unfortunately the reality of most bilingual countries is quite different. The nature of history has meant that language and politics are closely intertwined and the ‘other’ language may well be one that was actively used to discriminate against your forefathers. From the outside it is fantastic that Canada is an officially bilingual country. Who wouldn’t want their children to speak French and English fluently? The thing is that most of them don’t.
The latest episode of The Amazing Race Canada provided a good illustration of the reality. The episode was set in Paris with a number of tasks that involved speaking in French. Of the six pairs two were Francophone so they had no issues in French (though one pair had difficulty with a previous task where they had to learn a song in English). The sibling pair of Indian origin spoke no French but obviously had some knowledge of Spanish. One of the Anglo pairs spoke good (Parisian style) French, another was functional and a third pair had no substantial French either. It’s a small sample but if you had eight Irish people the chances are that they would demonstrate the same relative competency in French since most people take French in Ireland too. You would expect that every Canadian would at least be functional in French but that is just not the case.
Equally it seems bizarre that all of these Irish children in officially bilingual Ireland are spending fourteen years of their lives learning a language that many of them cannot hold a conversation in when they leave school. Where are all of the bilingual children you might expect in a country that focuses on learning two languages from the start of school?
Although I would have loved to have encountered a bilingual Canada the fact is that I was in BC, the westernmost province far from the Francophone heartland. One very good thing in Canada is that products are labeled equally in French and English so if you are actually interested you are continually exposed to written French. Equally there are French language channels readily available on the television. I heard French spoken on only one occasion in Vancouver and from their accent those people were French tourists and not Canadians. If you really want to speak French and engage in the language in Vancouver you can but the same can be said for Japanese or Mandarin. If you are a normal child in school there French is as remote as the Irish language is to a child living outside of the Gaeltacht in Ireland.
In Vernon we met one bilingual family where the mother is from Quebec so her perspective on things was very interesting indeed. Vernon is a city in the Okanagan Valley without any notable French speaking population but it does have a French immersion school. These schools are very similar to Irish language schools in Ireland because the majority of children come from English speaking backgrounds. What is also similar is that a large ptoportion of the teaching population are not native speakers of French. Although it is clearly not mandatory to be taught by a mother tongue speaker I am surprised that they don’t have more native speakers available since there are so many millions of French Canadians.
If you read forums about immersion education like this one you get a mixed view on how effective it is. Personally I think that people are too critical of the ‘Franglais’ that comes from speaking to other English speakers in French (similar to the derogatory attitude to Gaelscoil Irish in Ireland). The fact is that it is unrealistic to expect kids to speak absolutely perfect French unless they also interact actively with native speakers outside of school. However, that doesn’t mean that a less perfect form of French is so disastrous. In Ireland we were encouraged to go to Irish speakers areas to get properly fluent. There was no notion that school Irish was the same as what a native speaker would produce. Similarly any Anglo Canadian who speaks school French would only have to spend some time in Quebec to their French polished up nicely.
The interview that Benny, of Fluent in Three Months fame, did here about Quebec French points out all the main differences between Quebec ‘joual’ and the Parisian French we learn at school. I have to say that Quebec French is hard to get used to for me because of the pronunciation differences like the fact that you don’t hear the nasal ‘n’ we all spend so much time mastering. It would take me some time to be able to speak with a Quebec style accent but understanding gets easier once you get over the main pronunciation variances. It’s encouraging to hear that Quebec folk are very amenable to helping people who make an effort in French.
So I didn’t get too much exposure to French in BC, nor did I expect it but my interest in the Canadian language situation was stimulated again so you can see that my visit there did have a French twist at the very least.

Reality and a Trilingual Family

With lots of long term ‘projects’ you don’t have a real idea about what you are getting yourself into. You start off with ideas and assumptions and find out that the reality is not what you expect because there are so many variables outside of your control. So it is with our intention to raise our children as trilinguals. I was so passionate about this at first, it was one of the biggest projects in my life. I was convinced about the need to give our children the gift of multilingualism. I have copied some Q&As below that I supplied to a researcher who was writing an article for a newspaper some eight years ago.
I don’t really disagree with too much of what I wrote at that time but a few things do leap out at me. The first is that I thought it was ‘easy’ to maintain a trilingual environment. As the years have flown by that has proven so much harder than I would have predicted. When the children were younger they happily watched Polish television but as time has gone on their engagement with Polish culture has lessened considerably. That is partly because sport has taken up so much more of our lives than we could ever have known but it is also very much related to the fact that Polish as a language doesn’t really offer enough compared to what Dutch can and it definitely does not compete with English. If one thing has shone out in the ten years of Luna’s life it is that the language of America is very much the light that guides. Although there are Polish pop stars and soaps and everything else they pale by comparison to Hollywood. This should come as no surprise considering my own childhood when British things were more glamorous than Irish things and even they were positively insipid compared to the USA (Sunday afternoons glued to Vincent Hanley on MT USA). Once children can choose for themselves then you can’t really dictate the language they want to consume in. I would love Polish to be more attractive for them but, as it is now, it is more the language of their mother and Polish family than something they are actively engaged with. Sure they can speak Polish well enough but the limits of their engagement do little to stimulate the goal of speaking Polish at a level equivalent to their Dutch (or even English).
It’s not that English has promoted any sense of Irishness in them either. In Canada this summer we saw what a great thing it was that the kids could feel right at home in Canada, English gives you that capacity. Luna was at a camp in Poland last year and got on just fine through Polish but maybe it was the nature of the camp or just some barrier that she has around Polish children but she certainly wasn’t as caught up in the equivalent Polish experience. I didn’t want the children to have such a preference for English (given the fact that it usurped Irish in Ireland and is not my heritage language) but the cultural power of the language has a potent effect.
I find it funny that I assumed that Dutch would be left ‘on the doorstep’. In reality Dutch is the language that the girls use amongst themselves. It is their strongest language so they are more likely to know a specific word in Dutch than Polish or English. For that reason I sometimes have to tell them what an English word means in Dutch or what the English translation of a Dutch word is. That all sounds logical but I really did envisage a much cleaner situation with far less mixing over the language boundaries.
In Canada I had a few conversations with people who thought it was great that the kids could speak three languages. Since it’s not something we talk about or think about too much anymore it made me think a lot about how I feel now. In many ways it is much easier not to use three languages. For us life would be rather simple if we just spoke Dutch to the kids. The way we use our languages is fine in our family but it remains a source of difficulty outside home where the fact of us using English and Polish just draws attention to our foreignness. In practice I notice that the foreigners who seem the happiest in Holland are those who give up their languages. You just speak Dutch and mimic the Dutch way of doing things and everybody is happy. It might seem a bit extreme but I wonder sometimes if our decision to have a trilingual family has contributed to the sense of dislocation and general ennui I feel here. I speak fluent Dutch but I felt more at home in Canada on my first visit than I ever do here (and that’s not a holiday feeling, every time I go to Chicago for work it is also a sort of homecoming). I wonder if our children also feel like that. As Dutch is just one of their languages they may feel a much more tentative commitment to their home country than a single language Dutch kid might. I don’t know any more what it all means. I just know that we made this choice for our children and now we need to see it through until they are old enough to fend for themselves.

Q& A from 2006:
Our family set up is as follow. I am Irish aged 34 and my wife Agnieszka is Polish aged 28. We live near Leiden in The Netherlands with our two children Luna (2 years and 9 months) and Daisy (1 year and 6 months). Both my wife and I are were raised as monolinguals speaking English and Polish respectively.

Do you feel that learning/teaching three or more languages is harder than learning two?
It is not difficult to raise the children as trilinguals if you have the right environment. In our case I speak English to the children and my wife speaks Polish. We have television, music, books etc. available in both languages and we also have contact with friends and family close by who speak our languages.
Dutch is the language of the outside environment and my older daughter already goes to playschool four times a week and sometimes watches Dutch television. She also hears me speak Dutch on the phone and to the neighbours so she already understands quite a lot of Dutch even though her spoken Dutch is not well developed.
The challenge for us may come when the children go to school because Dutch will then be the strongest language. However, we will keep speaking Polish and English at home so I believe that they will leave Dutch on the doorstep.

How many languages are too many?
There is only so much time in the day so I don’t think that any more than three languages is practical for a young child. When the children are older I see no issue with adding other languages especially as we have family who speak French and Spanish.
As you get older and learn grammar I don’t think that there is any real limit to how many languages you can speak but you cannot speak all of them fluently all of the time. I speak many languages but while I am going forward in one language I trend to slip back in others. This is a natural process but you can definitely learn the basics of several languages and never forget them.

What are the main advantages/disadvantages of learning several languages?
The main advantage of being thoroughly fluent in a language for me is that you have unrestricted access to the culture surrounding the language and you are treated as an equal by native speakers. For us it is really important that our children appreciate Polish and Irish culture even if Dutch becomes dominant.
The main disadvantage is getting criticism from the outside world because you are doing something non-compliant. Dutch people can sometimes think that a child will fail at school if they are not hearing Dutch at home. This is not true but you still have to live with this perception.

OU Diary #37 – The Final Module

When I started off my OU degree I registered for English Language and Literature with the naïve idea that I would love studying literature and that English language studies would match with my general interest in linguistics. As anybody who has followed my OU posts will know the reality worked out differently in all kinds of respects. I switched over to a Humanities path when I realized just how tough studying literature was and I wanted to have the freedom to do foreign languages if I wanted.
As things have turned out though the wheel has turned full circle. Although I really hated lots of things about the E301 – The Art of English course I did benefit a lot from studying stylistics and I benefited from the freedom I had in the EMA to select my own texts. To be honest those two points enabled me to get a Distinction which was a near miraculous result considering I was heading for a Pass 2 after the first TMAs. The result means that I have two Level 2 Distinctions and 1 Level 3 Distinction. In OU terms that means that need to get a Pass 3 or better to get a 1st Class degree. I wasn’t focused on getting the highest grade when I started out but still it would be nice to have that distinction.
After a lot of humming and hawing I decided to switch back to getting a BA in English Language & Literature. After all I started studying English originally to try to vanquish the ghosts from my past, as I wrote about back in 2010 :
“In the last weeks I have been trying to find my element and I think that I am getting closer to working out what I am and what I want to be. I have mentioned many times on this blog that I would like to study a degree in languages but I have always put the emphasis on foreign languages and not my mother tongue. What I have started to realize is that I also want to study English. I want to slay this dragon of self-doubt that has been holding me back. I love writing and I want to be a better writer so why not study the language I primarily use? Why let the past hold me back?”
I have still to register for the final module but I am almost certain that I will take 20th century literature: texts and debates (A300). I have already read a few of the novels and even looked at the course books to read the related analysis in some cases. The material is interesting and it builds on a lot of what I already studied. I won’t have any pressure to get the highest marks which helps too. I would be really worried if I was doing this one and needed to get a high mark because I know people who have scored badly on parts of this module. In a way too I can close off this phase of my study life nicely by doing this course and then move on to studying foreign languages and literature again in earnest.

Oh Canada! (xxviii)

It seems like a long long time ago that we arrived in Canada and now just before our final Vancouver sunset we pack our bags for home and ready ourselves for tomorrow’s journey. We wanted the time in Canada to be the family holiday of a lifetime, the one that all five of us would be able to look back on in years to come as a time when we were a unit, an echelon, despite the normal frictions and turbulence that every family must navigate. We found what we were looking for and more. We found a land that felt a lot like home with warm and charming people complimenting their beautiful natural environment. We were welcomed by all in an unforced, authentic manner. We let our guards down and embraced this exceptional country. From a gymnastics viewpoint the girls had the privilege of meeting wonderful trainers and friends at Okanagan RG which is a very special club. The love for gymnastics that our daughters share has only been deepened by their stay in Canada and by these final days in Vancouver where they have exploited the public spaces to show their talents. It has also been a kind of growing up and letting go for me. Last night at a playground in Stanley Park the girls asked to use the fitness rings and pull up bars that are the terrain of young and muscular men. A Russian guy looked at little Nadia pull herself up on the rings and turn over and back again and laughed aloud. In a thick Russian accent he proclaimed “You have three daughters, gymnasts, you are lucky, they will be champions!”.
I am lucky because I am already a champion to get to share my life with these four ladies and to have had these priceless Canadian days that we will cherish in our hearts forever.


Oh Canada! (xxvii)

In keeping with the last few days we tried to tick off some more Vantourist activities today. You can get a one day adult travelcard for for less than ten dollars and that works out well if you want to get in a lot of trips in a day. We took a bus down to Waterfront and got some photos in with Canada Place in the background before getting the Seabus across to the north shore. The Seabus is a nice ride and you arrive on Lonsdale Quay which has a great market. It also has a free viewing platform with a spiral staircase which gives you a perfect panorama of the Downtown cityscape. We took another bus to Park Royal mall because the girls really wanted to go to Justice. They were really impressed with the store which is like Cool Cat in Holland. We bought some threads and I also up some Levi 511s in The Bay for 40 Euro! A bargain in Canada! We went to the other part of the mall where they have the elusive Lululemon and also Ivivva. The two rhythmic girls got some new training tanks so they were very pleased.
Our next destination was the Queen Elizabeth Park. It is a really big city park like Central Park or Hyde Park and it has elevated and iconic views which are great for photos. We had a nice stroll around there and then made our way back to English Bay for another swim at First Beach. One full day left before flight day. I am looking forward to getting back even though Canada has been great, it’s time for regular life again.


Oh Canada! (xxvii)

Yesterday evening was cool for a number of reasons. The sweetest thing was that we went down to the park by First Beach to eat and watch the sun go down. The girls were so excited by the ambience that they started a spontaneous gymnastics show and before long Luna insisted that we get her clubs and ball from the hotel. There is something about that girl when she is being watched. She makes catches from throws that she drops time and again in training. The other two seem to be inspired by Luna to do more and better than they normally do. Back at the hotel we watched the Amazing Race Canada which we all lurrrrve. To cap it off I saw an extraordinarily beautiful documentary film called “Men Who Swim” about a male synchronized swimming team in Sweden training for their unofficial world championship, poetry in film if you ever get to see it.
Today we were back on the tourist trail with a visit to Vancouver Aquarium. Thankfully I had a 10% discount coupon because it well expensive and then they ask you if you want to make a $2 donation on top of the entrance which is a bit rich. Having said that it is worthwhile visiting because they have lots of really cool marine life to learn about and see. I particularly liked the jellyfish. The kids were crazy to see the dolphins and belugas and we got to see the two shows which were great. The aquarium had a big emphasis on conservation which I really appreciate. I don’t like all of the emphasis on climate change since there are many other factors threatening marine life like overfishing that are an even bigger danger. Anyway their cause is noble and it’s a good day out without needing to feel really guilty about all the animals being enclosed for our human pleasure.
We got back in the afternoon on time for a nice swim and slide on First Beach. We ate Chinese because our trip to the aquarium was a belated birthday treat for Daisy and she loves Peking Duck. We had Ginger Beef and Coconut Chicken too which were delish. We ended the evening back at the beach with sun setting on Vancouver and the girls doing gymnastics on the grass and three days to home and reality nibbling at my conscience.


Oh Canada! (xxvi)

Sometimes you do the touristy thing less because of desire and more due to a sense of obligation. So it was that we took the shuttle this morning from Downtown up to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Thankfully the shuttle is free because the entrance is to the park is pricey. The park is well designed and set up for an ‘into the tame’ tourist experience. The suspension bridge over the canyon is quite shaky when lots of people are moving but it is not really that scary or spectacular and the main preoccupation (naturelement!) is getting photos and the biggest danger is that the crowds will trample you to death in search of that elusive ‘shot’. If all we are doing is taking photos of the great ‘fun’ we are having then are we actually having any ‘fun’? Anyway the congestion eased in other parts of the park which included a treetop walk and cliffside stroll. Unfortunately few seemed to care that the point of walking through the rainforest canopy is to observe flora and fauna. The most observed beast was humanus eructus cum camera who stunningly captured every possible ‘angle’ provided by this ‘natural’ enclosure. The highlight was when Nadia wanted a photo holding her leg above her shoulder. An Asian couple clapped at her dare and proceeded to ‘ape’ the pose which was somewhat unbecoming considering Model 1 was a six year old girl and Model 2 as photographed by his wife was a man of some forty years. Was the park worth it? Yes, at half the price.
After some two hours we were done and lunched at the natural finish line. The best part of the experience was when our girls met three dogs with a very friendly owner. She let the kids pet the dogs for so long that they agreed (unknown to the owner) to do a gymnastics show. The three girls pulled out all the stops and did some great moves which provided plenty of extra ‘gratis’ entertainment to our fellow tourists.
We got back Downtown early enough to continue our quest to get to Lulemon. Alas! The shop is in the middle of moving and will only be open again on Thursday. Quel dommage!
We had time aplenty to have a swim in the enticing afternoon sun at First Beach on English Bay. Here we came across another contradiction of life in BC (or perhaps a mere reaffirmation of Janet Jackson’s prescient words) that ‘the best things in life are free’. You get bludgeoned for one thing and then another one is yours for nought. There is an amazing, steep slide that you can use for free. It isn’t even busy! The lifeguard there was from Dublin which I found after she started asking questions about where I was from. As I was sure she was Canadian I was as vague as possible and was pretty befuddled when she asked what part of County Clare I was from! It’s nice to know that my very neutral accent is still being recognized as Irish and I am a bit ashamed that I could not hear through her Canadian overtones. Anyway, it was another nice dat which will be capped off with pizza and the latest favourite show in this family “The Amazing Race Canada”.