August 8, 2011

Language and immersion in French Canada

Sadly, bi-lingualism is one of Canada's least convincing national myths.  Can you really blame me for being cynical, having come to Quebec from Alberta, Canada's bastion of Western interests (replete with it's own weird separatist fantasies)?

French immersion in Quebec is particularly embarrassing for those of us who've been taught French as a second language for the better part of our young lives (I was in French classes from Grade 4 until Grade 11--that's seven years!) and come away without the ability to communicate. One significant problem with the French education I received in elementary/secondary school is that there was no attention given to phonetics; oral communication in general was little more than an afterthought. This makes sense, given the fact that French is rarely spoken outside of Quebec, and, as with all skills, practice is everything.

It's been eight years since I've taken a French class, so not only was I way out of practice when I began this immersion program, I had forgotten almost all of the little vocabulary I was taught in school. In Quebec, I felt like I was actually learning something. There was a lot of review, but review was what I needed, especially because my mindset was completely different this time around. I suppose that's one of the major differences between the immersion experience and the mandatory language classes I remember hating in elementary school. With this new sense of urgency, several things became clear to me.

First, and most obviously, context is crucial. To an Anglophone like me, spoken French seems like its riddled with homonyms. Not only that: French is spoken with incredibly fluidity. It's often hard to know where one word stops and another begins.   This was true for my own comprehension but also in my efforts to communicate. There were many occasions where I put forward what I thought was a clear phrase--grammatically correct, and so on--and it turned out I had said something I hadn't intended.

Second, speech is a bodily practice. You'd think that after taking French through most of elementary/secondary school, I'd at least be able to pronounce things properly, but there are plenty of words and phrases that are next to impossible for native English speakers to say. It also works from the other side: all the French people I met had just as much difficulty with common English words (a hard "H" is next to impossible). While English is riddled with harsh-sounding consonants, with stops and starts, French strings soft vowel sounds together in unworkable combinations. In both cases, it really tires out your mouth; which, of course, has a lot to do with where the tongue is positioned and which muscles have been conditioned by everyday speech. 

There are elementary schools in Western Canada that offer programs in French immersion--and had the option been available to me, I would have been glad for it--but until our public schools treat second language classes like the invaluable resources for life that they are (and this means hiring French teachers who can actually speak French), we'll have to rely on programs like Explore.

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