The Sea of English

After years of travel, my family and I have spent the past year settling down in one of Canada’s liveliest Francophone minority communities—a community in which we’d actively sought work, in large part because we saw clear the linguistic and cultural gifts of living in such a place.  Every day, in work and in play, we rub shoulders with Francophones.  Every day, we hear French being spoken and read it around us.  And when our lack of confidence doesn’t get the better of us, we embrace chances to speak the first language of our Francophone friends and colleagues.  The French language has, and continues to enrich our lives, and the little fluency I have has allowed me to research and reclaim my Metis roots.  We love it here.

But even in this community and others like it, where Francophones speak with ease and fluency in both of Canada’s official languages, many Anglophones struggle to reach that same level of bilingualism.  And it’s not for lack of motivation.  I would argue, in fact, that contrary to the all-too-common narrative of Anglophone disinterest or laziness when it comes to learning French, for Anglophones the hurdles towards bilingualism can be dishearteningly steep.

Take the Anglophone author of the letter recently published in MacLean’s magazine: a long-time resident of a strong French minority community, a husband to a Francophone French immersion teacher, a scholar steeped in the rich “French-ness” of Canada’s history, and a father desperately trying to navigate the French language to ensure his daughter’s connection to her heritage and to give her the benefits of bilingualism.  He shows us that, even with the strongest of motivations, the purest of hearts and an unfaltering commitment to the task, learning the French language as an Anglophone Canadian is fraught with anxiety and requires great courage.

I think most Anglophones of my generation are acutely aware of the benefits of bilingualism.  We want to know French and we want our children to know it.  Most Anglophones I know, at some time or another, have attempted to navigate their way towards the new worlds opened by the French language and bilingualism.  But some of us become shipwrecked, ourselves, in that sea of English so often lamented by some Francophones.

Still others continue bobbing along, clinging to some little lifeboat—a few French library books, a six-week course or two, a patient Francophone friend—and we’re just hoping for a little more courage and some smoother sailing.   So please forgive us if we don’t always get it right; we really are trying.

Kirsten McPherson