After being out of the classroom for almost three decades, I've finally come back to tackle some unfinished business.
I should have done this long ago, I think as I crack open my new cahier d'exercises and stare at the list of verbs waiting to be conjugated. It's high-school French all over again, but this time I'm ready to pay attention.
I'm not sure how I managed to evade bilingualism, having grown up surrounded by Acadians in northern New Brunswick. Learning French could have been so easy in our little rural school where French-speaking students and teachers were in the majority.
But the prevailing attitudes and politics of the time stipulated the curriculum would be in English, a particularly artificial arrangement in our situation that, paradoxically, left us all speaking English with a quirky, French-type accent.
In junior high we anglophones - a category I was lumped into despite being the child of Dutch immigrants - received a daily French lesson that was both boring and weighted down by our conviction that verb tenses and vocabulary lists would never amount to a fluently spoken language.
Our teacher, however, refused to succumb to such pessimism and so we plodded along, up and down the rows, each taking a belaboured turn at reading a sentence, telling the time, answering a stilted question. Qui aime prendre l'autobus? Suzanne aime prendre l'autobus.
Often our blunders provoked snickers from the students in the French-speaking half of the class who were supposed to be reading or doing their homework.
" Répétez après moi," the teacher instructed, her enunciation concise and deliberate. " J'aime la géographie mais je préfère le français."
It was Robert's turn, and French was not his forte. " J'aime la géographie," he repeated slowly and awkwardly, " mais je préfère Françoise."
The entire classroom exploded with laughter, except for the hapless Robert who didn't understand his gaffe, and the diminutive Françoise who had been quietly minding her own business and was now cringing beet-red behind the lid of her desk.
In high school our bilingualism became the personal mission of Mme. Fournier. "If I can't teach you French, I'll grab my bag and head for the hills," she declared.
Again we chanted the standard conjugations, took a stab at the passé imparfait and tittered over each other's mistakes. Then graduation came and there we were in our black-and-red gowns, still doggedly unilingual, relieved to be done with French and pitifully ignorant of the opportunity finally squandered for good.
University took me to Montreal, where the so familiar and yet so foreign sound of French in my ear prompted me to take another stab at learning it, this time through an elective course. I vowed I would muster up the courage to practise in public, but then René Lévesque surged to power and Quebec took on such a hostile air the wisest thing an anglophone could do was keep her mouth shut.
The little French I knew slowly faded after we moved our young family to the west. I rarely heard it spoken here, and there was no evidence of an official second language anywhere. When my children entered high school I learned that French lessons were part of an "updated" second-language menu that also included Japanese and Spanish.
Forget French, was the message I heard time and again. Japanese and Spanish are the big business languages in this part of the world. Why would I deprive my children of these powerful, exciting languages?
Because this is still Canada, and we are Canadian. My kids studied French.
Sadly but predictably, they never achieved any useful level of fluency. Their struggle was even more onerous than mine, considering the isolated French pocket that was their classroom and the impossibility of it ever spawning real bilingualism.
I was fresh out of high school the first time I went to visit my relatives in the Netherlands. All my cousins spoke English, which they had learned in school along with French and German. I was amazed and then, thinking back to my own experience, I was appalled. If other countries could have such an effective system for language training, why was our approach so exceptionally useless?
A multilingual friend from Belgium made this observation: "Europeans see language as an asset, but North Americans see it as something that's being shoved down their throats."
My current French teacher is soft-spoken and shockingly young, no older than my eldest daughter. In class we talk and read, struggle with vocabulary and strain to understand conversations on tape. It's not that different all these years later, and I'm beginning to realize I did learn a fair bit in school after all. Much of it is beginning to flow back to the surface.
Mme. Fournier can take heart. Turns out her efforts really did make a difference.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic lives in Victoria.
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