Teaching Both Official Languages in Quebec by Julie Hamel

Teaching a second language is a juggling act…
Who doesn’t remember his French class in high school or elementary school? The experience could have been either pleasant or boring depending on the teacher’s enthusiasm and the student’s level of comprehension.

In general, French class was similar to other subjects. But for some, learning a second language was a bizarre and cruel experience, as if the course had been created on another planet.

The difficulties of reproducing sound, of deciphering oral or written content and of taking pen to paper are hard enough in one’s native tongue. I can testify that learning to do it in the second language, whether English or French, is an experience that can be discouraging for many. Words can get stuck in your throat and it’s just not as exotic as learning a ‘’foreign” language.

Anglophones have a hell of time getting their mouths around the Rs, the Us, the EUs and OUs in French, as difficult a time as Francophones who insist on pronouncing the silent L parked before the D in would and could, for example, or the THs that are not only pronounced two different ways, but leave one with a feeling of having a hair stuck on one’s tongue. In French the Ss are always silent, in English they are not. In English, GH can sound like an F (as in laugh) or not at all (as in though). In French the sound È is written many different ways (ais-aient-è-ê-es). It can feel like trying to learn gibberish from Mars. So with all these exceptions, and all those sounds that don’t quite match their visual components, it is not surprising to find so many cases of dyslexia in both French and English. Consequently, it is also not surprising to discover a kind of linguistic anxiety amongst learners. The phonetic apparatus is so different in both languages that an anglophone usually has an easier time learning a Germanic rooted language, and the francophone, a Latin rooted one. In addition to these hurdles, one cannot forget the political attitude of some language learners in Quebec, who somehow perceive the other language as the enemy. Thus, a teacher in this province must become a juggler of all these components in order to fulfill the needs of an eclectic clientele, within the boundaries of an ever-changing language usage. And both French and English classes are compulsory in Quebec schools, so there is no escaping it.

Not a magic recipe….
There are as many methods of teaching a language as there are schools of thought. Some swear that the teacher must never utter a single word of the native language while others rely on it excessively in order to save time, or because their own knowledge is lacking. I’ve come across French and English teachers who could barely speak the language they were teaching. There is no such thing as magic recipe. If a component is missing from the learning equation, such as attention, study skills, rigor, curiosity or memory, learning will not be systematic, especially if motivation is lacking. Motivation depends greatly on the teacher who needs a long list of survival skills including imagination and theatrical ability to keep from putting the students to sleep. On top of that, teachers are competing with technology.

Variety is a key to motivating students. Giving dictation is an effective way to train the ear for sound and spelling but may become wearisome if it is the only method used. Explaining a grammatical concept in the native tongue can be an effective way of securing comprehension if the native tongue is well rooted. However, if a student has never understood the concept of a verb in his own language, he will have trouble doing so in a second language. And how much grammar should be taught? I am not suggesting avoiding the big G all together, but are we asking all students to become linguists?

A teacher needs to be aware of the student’s own involvement. Some pretend to understand in order to avoid humiliation, while others have stopped listening all together, or rely on a classmate. There are many methods of teaching, many types of learners and many obstacles to learning.

As with music, listening is a key component of language learning. If you don’t practice playing your instrument you will never learn, and not everyone is talented enough to become a great musician! The acquisition of a second language is a gradual process that requires infinite amounts of patience and indulgence. One should be allowed to make mistakes without fear of the firing squad.

A second language is empowering…
Teaching a second language in Quebec can be a challenging task because the “other” culture is mistrusted by many. Yet speaking the “other” language can have the power to resolve or avoid a conflict. Learning a second language should be viewed as a solution, not a sell-out. How often have I overheard comments, on both sides, that have bordered on racism? Speaking a second language, either French or English, does not threaten one’s cultural identity. On the contrary, it adds to it. It is not self-extinction but self-extension. Therefore it is important for the teacher of a second language not to display imperialistic behavior. Motivation is not propelled by dictatorship. To inspire requires respect. Every language is a treasure trove of world visions. Language is not just a cumulative amount of vocabulary, but a world of its own. The English drink like fish, the French drink like holes. In English it rains cats and dogs (poor things), in French it rains nails or buckets (ouch). A language is filled with pieces of history and culture. For example, in 1006, after the Norman Conquest, the official language in Great Britain became French hence words like quality and quantity that come from the French “qualité” and “quantité”. In French, the word “redingote” (a fitted coat) comes from the English riding coat. Many French expressions are used daily in English, such as “à la carte” or “après-ski”. Here in Quebec, both languages have shared the same roof for better or for worse, for a long time, rather like an odd old couple.

Language belongs to a civilized world…
The province of Quebec provides a perfect opportunity to master both official languages. Why then must the learning of one or the other resemble a chore? A businessman once complained to me about the fact that road signs were lately only in French, when they had for so long been in both languages. My question to him was why, in all these years, hadn’t he learned to decipher the French on these signs? On the other hand, why in Quebec, shouldn’t a waitress be able to take a simple order in the second language, be it English or French? Why do so many people not learn a second language simply out of good will and not because the law says they have to?

Language is the very expression of our humanity, and as essential to life as water and air. Language should not be used as a weapon.

Language should be like a culinary experience: a beautiful sound designed to savor, to share, and to create connections between people, like the breaking of bread.

One thought on “Teaching Both Official Languages in Quebec by Julie Hamel

  1. Denis says:

    Very nice essay, Julie!

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