Sometimes Growing Up in a Bilingual Country Sucks

I love that Canada is a “cultural mosaic,” I really do. And even though a lot of the French despise Canada and want nothing to do with us, I really like the French language. It’s pretty.

But dammit, sometimes growing up in a bilingual country is difficult.

This is no shocker: if you’re fluent in both English and French in Canada, you’re set for life. You could get a bloody degree in Knitting Socks, but if you’re bilingual, you’ll get a job right away. Good jobs, like working with the federal government, the kind where overtime guarantees a cash flow so epic you can wipe your butt with it and still have enough left over to carpet the floors.

My beef is if you’re going to run a bilingual country, offer the same damned opportunity to become bilingual for everyone.

Photo by Edyta.Materka

Photo by Edyta.Materka

I started learning French in grade 2. My lessons involved pictures used to identify words like “stylo” and “chien.” The same lessons were repeated over and over again while gradually incorporating more intense lessons like verb tenses and sentence structure. My god, the mere thought of it makes me shudder.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy learning it, but the classes were always introductory. While I now I have a great basis for learning the language, I can’t seem to progress beyond the basics. Whether I pick up some language learning software or participate in a university class, I have to go through all the basics once again. The cycle is infuriating.

When I went to France last year, I was totally arrogant. I thought for sure I could find my way around, no problem. I could navigate the country easily, but when it came to conversing with strangers…it was terrible. I was a self conscious, blubbering mess.

I’m pissed about it. In St. John’s and pretty much every other city, kids are offered French immersion classes as a regular part of their learning. They take classes in both French and English, and so French is incorporated into their lifestyles like anything else. Plus it’s free (to my knowledge, correct me if I’m wrong), they have a right to that education. And people like me, who grew up in a small town, simply didn’t have that right. We didn’t even have the option (again, unsure if the provincial schoolboard makes such decisions, or the Canadian government).

Someone in my position, with a shitload of debt, could easily be making upwards of $60k a year with an English degree, simply by being bilingual. Just a quick Monster.ca search for “bilingual technical writers” draws up dozens of job offerings, some with starting salaries at $75k. I’m not kidding, it’s enough to make me weep.

I know I’m being a whiner, and the government does offer language learning courses as does Memorial University, but the sheer amount of work required to put into learning French is exhausting. Not to mention EXPENSIVE. I’m willing to pick up the evening classes, but how long does it take to become bilingual? Not even a university degree guarantees a bilingual certificate. How the hell would I fit that into my schedule, anyway?

Canada, sometimes you’re a bitch.

  • Jeffery

    Just found your blog today, I can definitely relate to your French problems. I almost failed high school French twice, that really dragged down my grades. I think the most important thing in learning a language is motivation, if you have that you will find all the means to help you learn it well. I just wasn’t motivated to learn French in high school so I didn’t learn much in 4 years.

    In college I got addicted to Japanese anime and was super motivated to learn Japanese. I signed up for a 9 week intensive Japanese program my first summer in college. Right after course registration they dropped us into a classroom with a teacher and banned English after that. The first day everything coming out of the teacher’s mouth was like a stream of sounds, I had no idea where one word began and another ended. The second day I started being able to catch some words here and there and make out what’s going on. This process by the way is highly mentally exhausting, trying to catch syllables and words out of a stream of alien sounds. I stuck through it because I really wanted to learn Japanese, I studied 10 hours a day and after a week of this I started having dreams in Japanese. (which is weird since I still wasn’t thinking in Japanese at that point) After 2 weeks I started thinking in Japanese and things started getting easier and less exhausting. At the end of the 9 weeks I could have basic conversations and not feel exhausted. I continued studying Japanese after the summer, and went to Japan the next spring. That was 9 months from when I started learning, and I was able to have long conversations on train rides and on walking tours of Tokyo with native speakers by that point.

    A lot of people here have mentioned immersion, which is definitely helpful. But from my experience, I think your problem is not the lack of immersion, but that you never broke through the critical threshold for a new language. I don’t know how much you know about language statistics, but back in the early 20th century people studied the statistics of word occurrences, and found that for every language they studied word frequencies form a Zipf distribution. It’s similar to the 20/80 rule, you only need to know a fraction of a language to be able to understand the vast majority of real world usages. Once you reach that threshold, learning new words from context, conversation, immersion, etc becomes easy and natural. Even though I’m a native speaker of English I still encounter English words I don’t know, but learning them is not difficult. For me doing the intensive Japanese program during a period of my life where I had burning motivation to learn Japanese allowed me to break through that threshold in 9 weeks. After that I could pick up additional Japanese on my own from watching Japanese TV shows and talking to native speakers outside of class. Before that point I would have just been lost even if I were exposed to immersion. If you are truly serious about learning French, you need to muster the motivation to study until your brain hurts and break through that critical threshold before your motivation dissipates. Immersion will not help you much before you get to that point.

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    Damn, that’s quite the inspirational story, considering you had to learn a whole new alphabet as well! I’ve been spending some time researching immersion programs since I wrote this blog post. Thanks for your input, I really appreciate it.

  • http://yesthereissuchathingasastupidquestion.com/ Kate

    I hope you’re thanking your lucky stars that you weren’t born in the US (or the Sudan for that matter).

    It would be so nice to have fluency incorporated into our education. I agree! I’m embarrassed about my Spanish every day. But at a certain point, I have to recognize that the one who hasn’t bothered to use the subjunctive properly is me. Ughghg! I don’t want to! I just want to use it flawlessly, but after 2 years in Argentina, I have to admit that’s not the way it works.

    I kind of wonder if immersion classes are even really effective for fluency in the end. I know many people who went to English schools from all over the world that are not exactly what you would call fluent.

  • http://theresa.undiscoveredcountry.co.za Theresa

    haha :)
    in south africa we have 11 offical languages and our tv and government stuff takes place in ALL OF THEM. everybody can speak english so its more of culture thing than a huge divider.
    french is hard. im bilingual but in a weird african language (afrikaans) that sounds like german and dutch but u actually cant really understand eachother! lameness.
    :D you could try getting hyponotised?

  • http://ibackpackcanada.com Corbin

    lol yea, I wasn’t much of a student though, so that could be part of it. But yea, the french we’re taught is some bastard child french. Its like formal mixed with random weird english slang. I’ve gotten drunk with several people from france, which inevitably lead to me drunkenly parlaying en francais. I was usually told that its understandable, but not your average france french. Just different.

    If you want to hear the craziest bastard french hang out with some Acadians. Wooah nelly. They’ll speak full on french for like 2 minutes then throw in a phrase of english, then a minute of french, then a bit more english. In order to understand some of them you honestly need to know both french and english, lol. Its awesome.

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  • Maíra

    I think the problem with your fluency is because of your teachers. It´s impossible to grow up (spending so many hours a day under this influence is growing up!) using a language and not be fluent in it! I started learning english when i was 8 and went up to when i was 14. when i was 15 i went to canada for the first time. i was shy at first, and messed words up sometimes, but my english was pretty damn good, some ppl even thought i was canadian (seems weird, but i guess with so many immigrants a lot of ppl have strong accents there!). and all i had was 2, 1 and a half hours of class every week. I wonder if they just didn´t encourage critical thinking enough, if they let you communicate in english if the topic was too complex or what, but this all sound kinda weird. And if your not the only one feeling this way, it just shows that french immersion programs are not very good.
    I agree that the best way of learning a language is to go to a place that speaks it, specially because they communicate differently. It took me a little while to be able to make jokes to canadian people, because you just don´t have the same sense of humor we do, for example. And I bet french french and candian french have the same kind of discrepancies too, after all it´s a different cultural background.
    My tip as someone that speaks 3 languages fluently nowadays: go there, pretend you don´t speak english. do like the japanese guy. if you get thrown in the pool you either learn to swim or you drown!

  • Maíra

    actually, USA doens´t have an official language, just found out today; that´s why i´m checking out this blog, looking for countries that have several official languages:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_United_States#Official_language_status