It was me, me, me all day long (National Post, July 24, 2002)

National Post

Gary Clement, National Post
An illustration of a mother about to give her baby a bottle, and the baby screams, "THANKS."

If, like me, you love words, and the power they yield when strung together for optimal effect, whether to persuade, charm or enlighten, you know that language is -- in postmodern parlance -- a form of capital. Just as beauty and talent are social and economic capital in New York and Hollywood, languages are cultural capital in
Quebec. When I lived in Toronto, speaking exquisite English and atrocious French, I was, metaphorically speaking, quite well off. But I became a welfare bum when I moved with my suddenly debased currency to Montreal.

To be quasi-unilingual in Montreal is to be hooked up to a continual IV drip of humiliation and envy: "Comment? Sorry, can you repeat ... um, sorry, can you explain that in English ...?" The flawlessly bilingual rule here. The insouciant grace with which these lords of the city flip back and forth from French to English is especially irritating because most of them have not earned their superior status. It came to them -- this is where the canker gnaws -- with no effort at all on their part, through birthright, early childhood education and milieu.

If we language-impoverished serfs could only buy or steal what these language barons possess in such superabundance! If we could only sue for it under the Charter of Rights! But alas, Karl Marx himself couldn't level this playing field. Even if we united every language peasant in the province and whipped up the mother of all revolutions, it wouldn't net us the second person singular subjunctive of the verb savoir. Nope, one has to do what the first guy did, the one who said, thousands of years ago, "It's all Greek to me": take lots of time, get a good teacher and practise, practise, practise.

Several years ago, I decided it was bilingualism or bust. I hired a private tutor, and devoted hours a day to La Presse, radio and TV news, cassettes, university courses - and the tabloid Allo Police (for the vocabulary!). I became functionally bilingue. Yet an hour speaking French still left me feeling like a marathon runner at the 20-mile "wall." I didn't work in a French milieu, so I knew I had to get myself "immersed," or I'd be sitting below the salt at the banquet table of Montreal life forever.

I signed up for two weeks in Jonquiere and the Centre Linguistique, where they are renowned for pounding French into the most lamentably language-challenged, such as Preston Manning and Ed Broadbent ("our most difficult cases," one prof confided). Jonquiere, a no-nonsense, homogeneously francophone town, and the last North American bastion of smokers' rights, nestles in the lushly wooded and water-gorged heart of the fabled Kingdom of the Saguenay. In summer, the school processes hundreds of students weekly. In my session, the "dead" season, there were only six of us, each assigned to a private instructor for six solid hours a day.

I was an anomaly in this pragmatic group. I was there for personal enrichment; everyone else was there for job- or government-related ends. It quickly dawned on me that this was not your average Canadian's idea of a good time. You wouldn't normally install yourself in this bosky hinterland unless you needed -- or were told you needed -- French in a hurry. So for the others this was a sojourn that was necessary, but about as welcome as two weeks in rehab. It soon became clear that I was by far the most advanced of the six students -- that is to say, I was the proverbial one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind. There were two near-beginners and three low-to high-level intermediates.

Determined to meet our diverse goals, however, we all seized upon The Method -- no English ever -- like grim death to get the maximum benefit. The Method naturally took its greatest toll on the beginners. Infantilized by their meagre stock of French words, they laboured to produce Neanderthal-level sentences, diligently ploughing millimetre-deep conversational furrows in the students' lounge. My inner survivor identified the strange and mortifying sensation these successful Ontario anglophones were experiencing. They felt poor. But not me!

Suddenly I was, like, George Soros -- or Oprah! In comparison with the other inmates of this gentle gulag, I was rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Lady Bountiful, I dispensed largesse to the needy, the halt and the lame: "David, you need some verbs -- please help yourself, I have so many!" "Brenda, you're stuck in an anglicized construction -- here, take hold of this phrase -- no, I insist!" "Anne, you seem discouraged. Let me teach you how to tell this French joke ..." The profs were the best part: brainy, quick, warm, dedicated, and over-educated for their job. You were guaranteed an intelligent interlocutor, who could hold up her end in any discussion.

The curriculum is all about you, the student, though, because you're supposed to talk as much as possible. So I talked and talked and talked for six hours a day: for one week to Christine (an adorable poet and playwright), the next week to Stephanie (an adorable phonetics expert). It was me, me, me all day long. No one was allowed to change the channel. Christine and Stephanie know everything worth knowing about me and a lot that isn't, and to their credit -- except for murmured corrections every once in a while -- neither ever betrayed by word or gesture that anything I said was less than the priceless pearl of wisdom they'd waited a lifetime to hear. It was Springtime for Narcissus, eh?

J'exagere, of course. At group lunches in the caf', I occasionally ceded the floor to others. The hot topic was the name choice of the new city formed from the merger of Jonquiere, Chicoutimi and La Baie. A referendum had chosen "Saguenay" over "Chicoutimi" (the name became official on June 27). It was the name, not the city, that was disappearing, but the evident distress amongst the Chicoutiminiens demonstrated the power of words to enrich or impoverish emotionally. I would like to have discussed the issue in the light of Bourdieu's theories of social habitus and cultural capital, but my own scant vocabulary capital at this refined level was insufficient to the task. I was poor again. Words failed me. At that moment, the scales of illusion fell from my eyes.

However much I improved -- and I did, by the way -- I knew I would never be perfectly bilingual. I am too old, and true fluency is to the mentally swift -- that is, to the young. Canadian parents! Heed my tale of woe! Fling your babies into French school so they can start their little cultural bank accounts, and their coffers will be overflowing when they are grown. And they will thank you for this windfall. For, as Sholom Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman so wisely bottom-lined it: "It's no shame to be poor -- but it's no great honour either ..."


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