By Kaiden Salt
I found myself seated in an unbalanced plastic chair, setting a backpack at my feet. That was pre-COVID, of course. A philosophy professor scuffled into the classroom, a heavy crossbody bag affecting their posture. I confidently glanced at the syllabus of this French philosophy course. Attending the course in English would’ve been feasible and, based on the language of my current program, more logical, but the familiarity of French-taught terms and concepts felt safer at the time.
Classmates exchanged brief introductions during the ten-minute break. As is customary, we shared our program and our reason for choosing the specific class. “Mais ton français est pas mal bon,” a person with a Quebec accent commented following my contribution. Le français is my first language, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Anxiousness stifled my response. Borrowed expressions and words fed into my speech as the conversation continued. I passed, perhaps, as an Anglophone taking a French class. It was easier to let it seem that way, as I was rusty.
Blurred linguistic identities
Curiously, when I find myself among people for whom English is their first language, nervousness permeates in the same manner. My repertoire of French vocabulary — which, outside of my household, is rarely used — stumbles between filler words and anxious laughter. Though not entirely, I forgive my poor performance with the thought that it is endearing when someone forgets or mispronounces words in their second language. I jokingly blame it on my upbringing, affirming myself as a Francophone frequenting English-speaking circles and, by extension, I maintain continuously alternating linguistic identities.
“Je ne comprends pas pourquoi tu n’étudierais pas en français,” my mother rambled. She reminded me of a time when she had lost her own mother tongue as a result of severed exposure to it. Though she eventually got it back after years of study, she was concerned that it would happen to me too. Naïvely perhaps, I shrugged off her warning, entirely confident in my French fluency. After all, I had been immersed in complicated French grammar since kindergarten and as far as I knew, my regular consumption of English media and interactions in Anglophone settings hadn’t really affected my fluency over the years.
Nurturing the language, a conscious act of love
However, concern accumulated as I started to notice the frequent mistakes made in letting English terms slip more often into my day-to-day French conversations. Self-consciousness developed surrounding my legitimacy as a French speaker. And, as a child of a French teacher, this was especially disconcerting.
Though they were far from lost, I had taken my linguistic abilities for granted. They needed to be nurtured, polished in order to remain alive. In an effort to rekindle my mother tongue, I started surrounding myself with more French content and social circles. Thankfully, reinserting myself into French language and culture was fairly easy. Be it through reading game instruction manuals, listening to Francophone playlists far too late on weeknights, or working in a bilingual environment on campus, continuously and consciously exposing myself to French enables me to preserve my first language, expand my vocabulary, and broaden my repertoire of inspirations for creative endeavours.
The benefits of multilingualism – the beauty of each unique voice at the top of the list
Aside from a personal interest in linguistics, nurturing my French also provides considerable and tangible benefits. It allows for a broader spectrum of employment opportunities, and, admittedly, some bursary-related aid at uOttawa — as good a motivation as any for a student. As Frank Smith puts it,
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”
Now I find myself sitting in an equally uncomfortable chair, attending an evening class. There’s a French writing assignment to submit later. Writing it in English would be simpler, but I won’t. All I need is a little more practice, diligence, and to remind myself that regardless of fluency, we can continue to appreciate what we share through our own diverse voices and backgrounds.
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