Bilingualism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As someone currently living and working in Ottawa, I am incredibly thankful for my ability to communicate in both of Canada’s official languages, English and French. When I was four years old, my parents decided to enrol me in French Immersion, and I spent the following 12 years learning primarily in French. I continued my study of the French language through University, completing a minor in French that included a study-abroad program in France where I was fully immersed in the language. Even still, it hasn’t been until relatively recently that I’ve been able to feel confident in my ability to converse and communicate in my second language.

I think Canada is a unique and wonderful country and one of its many assets is that it is a bilingual country. The ability to communicate effectively in a second language is something we should all strive to be able to do, but as an Anglophone who does feel reasonably comfortable in French, I can understand why an unwillingness to further a basic understanding of French exists.

Bilingualism: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | kathleenhelen

When I speak in French, it is very evident that French is my second language. That doesn’t mean I can’t speak French or that I can’t communicate clearly in French. It simply means that when I speak French, I may speak with an accent, I may fail to conjugate every verb correctly, and I may sometimes fail to remember certain words. But I can speak French. I can have a conversation, communicate instructions, and give presentations in French.  I can speak French.

I have, however, encountered situations where I have been told I cannot speak French (all while the entire conversation passes in French). There are, of course, days when I find it more difficult to use my second language than others; there are also days I find it difficult to communicate in English, my first language. I am still able to communicate clearly enough to be understood.

I think there exists, especially in areas of the country that are more bilingual by nature, a certain expectation that bilingual Canadians should be able to communicate flawlessly in their second language. That in order to call oneself bilingual it must be impossible for others to identify which is the second language.

If anything, I think this way of thinking discourages Anglophones from even attempting to learn or improve their French. If I’m constantly in fear that someone is going to complain about or judge my ability to communicate in French, I’m going to avoid using my second language as much as possible. If I’m not actively using my second language on a regular basis, I’m definitely not going to improve my communication skills.

I recently completed the second language testing required by the Federal Government, and through this process, I learned just how easy it is to forget your second language. Because I had been communicating orally fairly regularly in French for about a year before taking the test, and likewise had often been reading material in French, I did very well on those two sections of the test. There is, however, a third portion of the test that measures your written abilities, basically your ability to apply grammatical rules like verb conjugation. After receiving my results for this section, which was not so well done, I realized that while I was frequently speaking and reading in French, it had been at least six years since I had even thought about French grammar rules. Had I done the test six years ago, I may have had different results, but in those intervening years, where I had had little to no practice writing in French, I had forgotten a significant amount of the “rules.”

Continually practising and improving our second languages is an important task worth encouraging. Dissuading people from working on their second language by dismissing their current abilities is not going to help increase bilingualism in this country. According to Stats Canada, 75% of Canadians speak English as their first official language, with only 23.2% speaking French first (1.8% of the population cannot have a conversation in either language). Only 17.5% of Canadians reported being able to hold a conversation in both official languages.

In my opinion, the only way to retain and increase the number of French speakers in this country as a whole is to promote bilingualism by encouraging Anglophones to practice and use their French. If you are a Francophone, I implore you to be patient and allow us Anglophones to struggle with your beautiful, but complex, language, because that is the only way we are going to improve. Please stop judging and dismissing us as we try. For many of us, it is difficult to find situations where we can be exposed to the French language and can practice and learn, so when we do try it, please don’t immediately reject our attempts.

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