As a tiny girl still not able to read much in my native English, I was taught a little French by the short films pasted into the Canadian version of the Sesame Street program my mother dialed us into to give herself an hour of time for something other than childcare every day. This French was mostly just counting to twelve and “Mon ami, mon ami, mon ami pour la vie…”, but it was not nothing.
When I learned to read English, it became clear that half of the words on the sides of the salad dressing bottles and milk cartons on our dinner table were not English. “Agitez bien”, “Sans arômes artificiels.” My oldest son, who worked as grocery stocker, calls this Cereal Box French and every life-long Canadian knows it.
On the east coast of Canada, French was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, taught in elementary schools with wacky rhymes about lonely old men who dress up brooms as women and with games ending in the taunting victory song “Eh, eh, eh, nous avons gagnéeeeeee…” My teachers were natural Francophones—Acadians who pronounced “oui” more like “weh”, like I still do when I’m in a French situation and I finally start to relax.
My bff was half Acadian herself, with a Francophone dad who raised her almost completely in English. Still, we’d often speak to each other in a Frankenstein-ian abomination of French and English, ingraining mistakes and bad habits. But Nova Scotia Public School Patois was good for when we were babysitting and wanted to tell each other things without the preschool kids understanding. “You’re talkin’ silly,” one of them told us. How right she was.
I didn’t finish high school in Nova Scotia but in western Canada, in a small town where the oral French exam was simply reading a list of words aloud. This was the fizzling end of my formal French education. But at the restaurant where I worked was a boy my age newly emigrated from France. We spent our shifts speaking mostly in French until my new bff—who had a huge crush on French boy—rightly pointed out how rude this was to the rest of the staff. “And what does ‘salut’ mean, anyway? Why does he always say it to you?”
In university, I wanted new things, foreign things, and left French for German, which I studied long enough to know its grammar was not to be taken lightly, and not to be taken any further by me.
My history with French is one of forcing it and faking it. Now, I’ve come to the end of the line of that approach. I’m working on a graduate degree that requires me to read academic texts in at least two languages other than English. I’ve satisfied the requirement for Chinese (on paper, anyways) and the quickest route to a third language is back in time, back to French. In a Canadian modern languages department, it is often very generously assumed that I must have decent French. When I met my thesis supervisor for the first time, she began our conversation in French. I understood, but answered in English. Not good enough, Wannabe-Doctor-Q.
I’ve said elsewhere that relearning French—a language I have never really studied but learned by lazy childish osmosis before setting it aside for decades–has been like trying to summon the dead. It’s an archaeological dig after the bones of something that is still with me but buried in time, disuse, and in a little German and a lot of Chinese. I unearth things, hold them up to the light, and test them out to see if they still work. The results are mixed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a compartment in my brain for every language I’m using. All I have is an English compartment and a non-English compartment. I go to the non-English area looking for des mots français and come away with a handful of 汉语. It’s my ridiculous Mando-Franc-ösisch, making me sound like a lunatic. I sit blinking, stammering, translating French out of the Chinese that’s tumbled out of the non-English compartment of my brain. When I mentioned it to a linguist friend of mine, she told me it’s normal, and to some extent it will always be a part of my struggle.
One month into my first French course of the old new millennium, I sat in a university stairwell, phone to my ear, listening to my half-Acadian bff asking me in my own accent, “Pourquoi prends-tu le français, mon amie?” I launched into my “Parce-que…” naturally, easily. In that French, she still sounded like herself, and I still sounded like me. Even after I slipped into broken Chinese, and she laughed, and we went back to English—every word was still me. This dusty dig-site, this messy mind, this chaos is really me.