I just found out that you can't link anymore to the Globe and Mail article I wrote for Facts & Arguments, Friday August 12, 2005, unless you subscribe to the Globe and Mail online news. Well, here it is, as published, for those who haven't read it yet.
English, French: Why not both?
By Peggy Lampotang
When I came to Canada at the age of twenty, I was very excited to be part of a bilingual country. I was born in Mauritius, a predominantly French-speaking island whose dialect is Creole and official language, English.
Creole is colourful but was considered a crude form of French and teachers forbade its use at school. French was the language of choice and I loved the way it flowed in my blood; I danced in it, flirted with it. When I spoke it, I felt alive.
I studied in a British system of education, and enjoyed writing in English, but speaking it was a different matter. The shock upon arriving in Toronto and discovering that French was limited to the Harbourfront Francophone Centre and the Alliance Française prompted me to take trips to Montreal.
I was fascinated by the lifestyle differences of the expressive Québécois and the reserved Torontonians. But I stayed in Toronto. I liked its industrious quality. I wanted to feel at home in English. My accent, source of much hilarity, and sometimes, romantic speculations, was frustrating but did open doors for me.
The first lesson I learned from a boyfriend was to curl my tongue, put its tip under the upper teeth, and blow gently the feathery sound “th” so that when I said three, people knew it was number three and not tree, the wonder of nature that sprouts from the soil and grows into trunk, branches and leaves.
Soon I learned to respect the nuances in each language, pronouncing words, delivering them in ways that sharpened my awareness of fundamental cultural differences between English and French.
Ever notice how French translations are much longer than English ones?
While reading a cereal box, I realized it wasn’t a problem with the translator. This concise and brief statement instils the down-to-earth, good sense of English: “It can be an important part of your family’s nutritious breakfast.” The French translation however, with its lengthy enticing words, gives a frisson about how pleasurable and extreme the cereal experience will be: “Ces céréales irrésistibles occuperont sûrement une place de choix à votre table lors du petit déjeuner familial.” (These irresistible cereals will surely occupy a place of choice on your table during the family breakfast).
During a French conversation, I can elaborate at leisure my descriptions; the more words, the better. However, in English, I use clear, exact words, with the least repetition possible.
An Anglophone finds it hard to say certain French words like “cracher” (to spit) because there’s a tendency to roll the “r” with the tongue and utter the word with a half-open mouth. As an Anglophone, if one is willing to open one’s mouth wide and throw the sound from the back of the throat, one will sense the openness of French. However, as a Francophone, the challenge of speaking English is to restrain the elasticity of one’s lips. One has to roll words out on one’s curled tongue while decreasing the opening of one’s mouth to feel the smooth fluidity of English. How else would one make Toronto sound as if it has only two syllables?
Anglophones struggle with the letter u as in “écureuil” (squirrel) because they can’t keep the tongue down and form the lips into a tiny oval shape to emit the sound as if it’s easing into a kiss. On the other hand, Francophones could alleviate their difficulty with silent h as in, “Ow is e?” if they are willing to make the h sound come out as a short breathy exhalation.
The economy of movement in delivering words in English, whether it’s from the mouth or the rest of the body, gives a feeling of preciseness but also of control. The French language however, with its constant shifting of the mouth opening, from the jaw breaking “Ah” to the pouting “Oh”, while the hands point, close, open, spread, or jiggle in all directions, expresses unbound passion. An Anglophone could see this openness as too dramatic, vulnerable and exposed, but a Francophone could interpret the lack of movements of the Anglophone as rigid and cold.
I have lived in Toronto for almost three decades. I even dream in English.
There were times when my craving for French made me feel that part of me was missing. When I enrolled my children in French Immersion, I discovered with pleasant surprise a new community of bilingual parents.
The opportunity to speak French regularly has brought a new balance in my life. I feel lucky to be among Canadians who can speak both languages.
My personality changes when I switch from one language to the other.
I feel in charge, efficient, and love the flow of English sounds rolling and swishing from my mouth.
When I speak French, I feel sensual, demonstrative, perhaps a bit excitable, but I relish its intensity.
Fluency in English and French brings familiarity to the quirkiness of their inherent differences and makes it easier for me to tolerate and accept both.
My experience with these two languages makes me see the depth of Pierre Trudeau’s vision for this country when he implemented official bilingualism.
Allez-y, Canada. Let’s get along. Why not both, hey?