Learning to Love Living In French
Trying To Be Myself In My Second Language
Moving to Quebec from northern Ontario was hugely exciting for me. My husband grew up in Quebec and wanted our children to experience his culture and know their French roots. I was one hundred per cent in agreement with that. Being raised in a place where we were all known simply and lovingly as ‘Canadian’ and not really knowing what my roots were, or having any special traditions to pass on to my children, I desperately wanted them to have solid roots in their French heritage.
So four years ago, my family and I arrived here in Quebec. I had big plans and was sure that I would fit in well and that my lack of functional French would only motivate me to learn the language. My husband had warned me in advance that it would probably be tough to adjust, but I was not to be discouraged. I was ready for a change.
My first week in Quebec was a whirlwind of activity. My husband wanted to show me everything. He was so proud as he spoke of the Battlefields, the architecture of the Old City and the beautiful Catholic Churches. He spoke of Quebec as if he truly loved it and was deeply connected to it. I felt a surge of pride myself that my children would have this kind of passion for their home ‘la belle province’. He took me to clubs where everyone sang together and everyone knew the words to every folk song played. It was an amazing interaction that I had never experienced before. We ate meals that I had never heard of, but that I would never forget. Fondues, interesting cheeses, savoury wines, brandy and coffee were centered around vibrant conversation and heartfelt laughter…all of which I didn’t understand.
My second week in Quebec was accompanied by massive migraines and early nights. I was straining so hard to understand that I physically made myself ill. As a person who loved to be expressive and was never short on good conversation, I felt as if I had lost myself. I could not make myself understood, and the awkwardness that goes with not knowing what to say was my constant companion. I felt as if no one could ever know the ‘real’ me.
During the months that followed, life became more and more difficult. I was always at home with my two young daughters and was finding it hard to meet people. Banking, doing the groceries and running errands had become a dreadful event for me. I was desperately afraid of someone trying to small talk me and me not knowing how to explain that I didn’t understand. Then I would have to resort to the one word that everyone understood “English” which would without fail cause the other person to kind of nod knowingly and walk away. It was embarrassing.
Six months later, I had had it. I no longer knew myself. I had become introverted and scared of everything. I missed my family, my friends, and just the English language in general. I wanted to go home. That night, I prepared myself to tell my husband of my intention of leaving. I was also prepared to put up a fight to plead my case if need be. After spilling my guts, I retreated to my bedroom to cry…partly in shame of my naivete in thinking that I could live here, and partly in frustrated anger at my inability to adapt. Minutes later, my husband came into my room and softly told me that he would follow wherever I chose to go. I was dumbfounded. He calmly agreed that I wasn’t flourishing here and that we should move. With that, he left me to think.
Within the space of an hour, and with my new found freedom, my mind started to go in circles. I asked myself where I wanted to go? What was I doing with my life? Why was I cowering like a whipped animal when all I needed to do was learn? And why didn’t I seize the opportunity Quebec had been holding out to me like a gift for so long? Why wasn’t I learning French? What was holding me back?
And just like that, everything clicked.
I left my room, kissed my husband, apologised for being so whiny and left all my negativity behind. I have never looked back. I decided to stop resisting what Quebec had to offer and embrace it instead. From that day forward, I learned French actively. I listened with real interest without spacing out and being ‘dans la lune’ so to speak. I jumped into French conversations even when I knew my tenses were off and my pronunciation was a wreck, and I even found I could tell jokes in French, though the English humour was often lost on my listeners. For me, it was the only way to really ‘get over’ my shyness of sounding like an idiot when speaking French, which I still do from time to time. But a glass (or bottle) of Merlot has often helped me out to the point where when meeting new people, they can’t even place my accent sometimes. It is always a huge compliment to me when someone asks me what part of Quebec I hail from. It means that I am finally improving and that my perseverance is paying off.
Life is still a little more difficult than I anticipated it being at this stage. I have to really ‘listen’ when people talk to me, and can’t take anything for granted. In a way it has taught me to be REAL. I can’t fake listen or give fake answers. Everything I say is now meaningful because it is well thought out. I still stumble over my words and have to ask people to repeat things and parlaying on the phone in French is no picnic. I even had to reassure an interviewer during a job interview one time that ‘I’m not stupid, I’m just an Anglophone’, because I was stuttering and mixing up my words so terribly. But I got some good laughs out of that line and even landed a job that way..
In the end, I have to say that I truly love living here now. The French people are kind and generous and accept me for all my shortcomings when it comes to speaking their lovely language. And I have finally found myself in my second language. I now realize the importance of communication and how I never knew what kind of a gift I had just to be able to speak and to be understood. Never take for granted what you possess. And never stop learning just because you are comfortable where you are…you never know when life will make you uncomfortable.
Books To Get You Started
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