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.