By , LAUREN BATES
Thursday, October 4, 2018
As is the birthright of all anglophone Canadians, I pored over my breakfast cereal box and congratulated myself on my linguistic abilities as I recognized flocons de maïs and cinq grains entiers. Like most of my fiftysomething peers, I learned enough high-school French to understand "press two for service in French" in the language of Molière, and to order a cup of tea in a Tim Hortons in Montreal - although not enough to convey my husband's desire for "steeped tea." My effort resulted in something quite undrinkable and a source of amusement for my family.
When I was growing up in the suburbs in the late 1970s and early 80s, I had dreamed of something more. Back then, I didn't think French was the language of federal government notices and cereal boxes, but instead of gourmet food, blackclad existentialist philosophers and experimental films. It suggested a world away from the suburban subdivisions and shopping mall food courts that surrounded me, from the teenage guys who thought they could impress me by crushing beer cans on their heads and tossing popcorn down my shirt. It was the language of a bigger life than the one I seemed destined for.
Very few of us become fluent in another language by studying it in high school - especially if you're from the era where the teaching method consisted of mainly grammar sheets. I went to university and then to professional school, moved across the country, pursued a demanding career, married and raised children. I made some sporadic efforts to maintain my smidgen of French and even improve it, but eventually recognized that this was futile. None of us achieve everything we intend when we are young.
I was well aware that new languages are best learned when young, and that our abilities in that regard decline with age. I was also not going to become a Supreme Court Judge, cure myself of swearing, run a 10-kilometre race with my unreliable knees or screw down a subfloor without asking for my husband's help. Part of aging gracefully, I thought, is accepting who we are with all of our limitations.
But then, in a moment of recklessness, with 50 in the rear-view mirror, I signed up for French classes. My eldest son was leaving for university in another province. I figured that the reduction in cooking, laundry, tutoring, life-coaching and tidying would leave me a few additional hours in the week. If I was not determined, my endlessly expansive job would simply soak this time up as it did with all my unscheduled moments. In a tiny rebellion against the passage of time and the relentless march of my responsibilities, I decided that it was time to do something that was not intended to be productive or career oriented, but was just for myself. A French class seemed just the ticket.
When I was tested for placement, it was clear that the cereal box was really the extent of my remaining abilities, and I was placed at almost the introductory level. When I looked around at my first Saturday morning class, I was struck by how many of the students were learning French as a third, fourth or even fifth language. Contrary to my assumption that learning a new language was impossibly difficult, there were people who learned new languages as a matter of course. If a 40-yearold newcomer to Canada who had only just mastered English as her third language could dedicate herself to learning French as a fourth, surely I should take courage.
I found that it really was true that certain linguistic abilities fade with age. While I'd always thought of myself as a quick learner, that was no longer the case. I absorbed new vocabulary very slowly. What I learned one week seemed to slip away as soon as I learned the next skill. I looked up the same words and language structures over and over again. However, the patience and persistence I'd learned with age came to my aid. If I had to look something up 20 times before I learned it, then I had to look it up 20 times. If I had to spend my evenings with flash cards memorizing irregular verbs, so be it. And having made my share of humiliating mistakes as a professional, parent and spouse hardened me to the embarrassment of trying out my abysmal French.
When my teacher gently pointed out that, during an exercise in describing our qualities as work colleagues, rather than describing myself as easygoing I had actually identified myself as, um, a good-time girl, I was able to see the humour in it.
I'm not fluent, but a couple of years in, I can listen to the news in French and catch 90 per cent of it on the first try, read a novel if the language is not too flowery or slangy, and hold up my end of a conversation if it doesn't go too fast and one isn't too picky about the grammar. Who knows what I might yet accomplish?
I've learned so much beyond some grammar and vocabulary. I've met people from around the world and all walks of life who have the courage to make fools of themselves in order to learn something new. I've been taught by patient and inspirational teachers from many corners of the world, including France, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. Listening to the news as it is presented to the people of France and of Quebec, I have a renewed understanding of how something can look completely different from another perspective.
I've read Voltaire and Montaigne in their own words, and have seen the limits of translation for myself. I've learned that a language is not just a set of words, but a way of thinking - as horrified as I was to learn that you may have to conjugate a French verb completely differently depending on whether you are thinking or feeling, doubting or believing, I was also fascinated.
But most of all, I've learned that it really is never too late to learn something new. I'm older now, but I'm not finished changing and learning. Maybe I can still figure out how to make a meringue that doesn't collapse, dance the salsa and use a drill hammer. For certain, I can travel and embarrass myself in French around the globe.
Lauren Bates lives in Toronto.
ILLUSTRATION BY ESTÉE PREDA