We Are Family…I mean “Famille”

IMG_0374In Grade 4, I fell in love with all things French.

OK, that’s not entirely accurate.

In Grade 4, I fell in love with Rémi. He was the new boy in the class and he was French (which, if you’re paying attention, you can tell from the accent in his name). He was fresh from Québec City, didn’t speak a word of English and was my on-again, off-again, he-thinks-you’re-cute-do-you-think-he’s-cute boyfriend until Grade 8 when his family packed up and moved back to La belle province.

Grade 4 was also the year that, coincidentally, we started learning French in school. And the year that Madame Benjaminsen–who recognized a budding Francophile in her class–let me borrow one of her records to listen to at home. It was the debut album by a little girl called Céline who was topping the charts in French Canada and starting to break onto the international music scene.

It took me until about Grade 12 to really grasp the notion that French was a language people actually spoke in order to communicate as opposed to just walking around and reciting “Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est…” or singing. What a break-through! I spent the summer I turned 18 at a tiny school in the South of France, immersed for the first time in the language I loved. Followed by a summer in rural Quebec. Followed by four years of university studying French language and literature at Western in London. Interrupted by a year studying French as a second language at Laval in Québec City (I think Rémi walked past me at the mall one day, but I can’t be sure…) Followed by two years at Ottawa U. studying translation.

So it came as no real surprise to me that during my 5th year of post-secondary éducation I met and fell in love with Luc. Who is French (which, if you’re paying attention, you can tell from the odd way he spells his name).

But Luc, who was born and raised in the nation’s capital by French-speaking parents who were born and raised in the nation’s capital, is a whole different breed of French Canadian. He’s Franco-Ontarien. Which, loosely translated means “exceptionally proud of the fact that he is Canadian and speaks French as his first language and wasn’t born in the province of Québec and don’t you dare ever call him a Quebecer or suggest that French Canadians don’t exist anywhere in the country outside of Québec because he will take it as a personal insult and make it his mission to either convince you otherwise or beat the merde out of you depending on whether or not there is beer involved.”

So it was a no-brainer when we had kids that we would be raising them bilingual.

For the most part it’s working. The kids speak both English and French. They read in both English and French. They listen to music, watch TV and take in movies in both English and French.

But it’s not without its challenges. Most of their friends on the street speak only English. My side of the family speaks only English. They are bombarded with English ads, English celebrities, English everything all the time. And as a result, when the two of them are alone, they default to English.

I don’t see this as a huge problem. As an Anglo, I’m just happy that my kids go to French school, can seamlessly switch from one language to the other when Grand-maman calls, and will go to the top of the list of eligible candidates when they end up working for the federal government in 15 years. (Cuz we live in Ottawa. It’s inevitable.)

But Luc is much more sensitive to the fact that his “bilingual” kids are more Anglo than Franco. He hounds them to speak French when they’re playing in English. He threatens to send them to English school if they don’t shape up.

While I see our bilingual family as being so much more–linguistically and culturally–than the unilingual English family I grew up in, I think at some level Luc sees us as less–linguistically and culturally–than the unilingual French family he did. There’s a loss there for him, where I see a gain.

There are nuances to language. And no matter how fluently bilingual you become–how much you read and study and immerse yourself–sometimes, even if you’re doing your best to pay really close attention, there are things that just can’t be translated.

Voici les pensées de Luc sur le sujet de notre famille bilingue.


9 thoughts on “We Are Family…I mean “Famille”

  1. Kelly Fruhauf says:

    Seriously, you two are made for each other! Very lucky kids to have such a rich heritage they get to be a part of every day. The choices and opportunities they have open to them are many and varied thanks to the care you have taken in thinking about these things.

  2. Ryan Brooks says:

    All children should be so lucky to be exposed to such a diverse and culturally rich home life. My parents are both British, but I grew up in Australia, and having that cultural diversity taught me a lot about the nature of the larger world we live in. Your home sounds like a wonderful place to grow up. 🙂

  3. Such a gift, being raised in a bilingual home! Love that French and English just part of your kids’ lives.

    I just have to share: I took a year of French in high school in Texas (where my family lived for only a couple of years) — because I loved the sound of the language. My teacher, however, had a THICK Texas twang and she kept correcting our accent until it sounded like hers. Fast forward to a couple summers ago when we took our family to Quebec City. I was so terrified of offending anyone with my hideous “Texan-French” accent, I didnt speak a word — just pantomimed my way through.

    • Yeah, accents can be a little crazy! Mine is a weird combination of Québec, Ontario, Southern France and school. I’m pretty fluent, so people sometimes think I’m French, but they can’t for the life of them figure out from where!
      p.s. Don’t ever worry about trying out your French…the effort will ALWAYS be appreciated.
      p.p.s. Did you LOVE Québec City?

      • ADORED Quebec City! So gorgeous. We were there in the summer and there was a huge music festival going on (Elton John was playing live, I think). It was awesome and people were very kind to us and our sad attempts to communicate.

        My husband and I want to go back by ourselves because it seems like such a romantic place. And I promise I’ll use my sad Tex-French when I go back!

  4. Lynn says:

    Hm, very interesting. I have had a post brewing in my head for a while about French Immersion – my kids are all in the program – and how I wish we hadn’t chose it. We would probably feel differently if either of us spoke any French. I will be thinking over your post and trying to see the French as a gain, not a problem – thanks!

    • I’ve heard good and bad things about immersion. It’s certainly not for everyone. My two are in a full-on French school, so I can’t really compare. Glad I’ve given you food for thought, though.

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