I want to write a bit about learning a foreign language abroad through my own experiences abroad in Montreal. For any Gators interested in studying abroad, it is important to not get discouraged because of a language barrier. Three months in Quebec, I realize that my initial expectations of this place do not match the reality. I expected that since I had three years of French in high school, I would have no difficulty adapting to the language up here.
So what are things really like up here?
The Quebecois culture is truly different than any other in the States or, for that matter, from the rest of Canada. Through the preservation of Quebec’s particular variety of French, the Quebecois have maintained their individual culture, one they are very proud of. Although many attributes distinguish Quebecois culture from the rest of Canadian culture, the French language is perhaps the most central.
French has the status of being the province’s official language, meaning that politics are all done in French. Street signs and ads are mostly in French, but every now and then you’ll find one in English or with sub-titles. All of that said, Quebec is also very inclusive. One of my favorite things about Montreal is that almost everyone here speaks three languages. Language communities are as abundant as they are diverse. French is heard everywhere, but so are other languages. No matter which language you speak, it is almost certain that you will find a community of speakers here to quench your language cravings. But, back to Quebecois.
What distinguishes Quebecois from “regular French?”
When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand a word. The accent up here is not like the Parisian one taught in your French class. Instead, speakers up here have a certain “twang,” in some ways like the American Southern accent. Fortunately, I have learned to distinguish (and replicate!) the Quebecois accent. Warning: heavy slang!
Fun fact about Quebec slang:
Historically, the Catholic church in Quebec held a lot of power. As a result of frustrations against the church’s iron grip, many biblical terms (which sound benign to us) became common pejorative terms among the population. Despite the church losing much of its influence during the 60s, these bad words remain widely used. In other francophone regions of the world, these terms are not considered profanities, which differentiates Quebec to a degree.
It’s not easy (learning a language)
Most of my friends up here are francophone. This has helped my French grow in strides, yet it can also lead to frustrations. Oftentimes, I don’t understand 100% of what is being said during a conversation , so I have to resort to having an interpreter. This becomes a bit frustrating, especially when you want to independently learn and comprehend the language. Yet, it is important to be a patient grasshopper. After two months, I am already writing in French, reading in French and the fluidity of my speech is rapidly increasing. Sometimes, I even sound Quebecois when I speak. But the battle is not over yet, cause I still have a long way to go.
Learning a language got your tongue twisted? Here’s what you can do…
1. Submerge yourself in the language: Jam to music in the language you are trying to acquire, hang out with speakers of the language, read and write as much as you can. Most important, don’t forget to listen, listen listen! My advice is to submerge yourself in the cultural landscape. This way you have access to the language and the arts of your host country. In Montreal, there is a diverse selection of plays and the movie theaters show Quebecois film in addition to American. You will feel lost at first, but it is incredibly important to grow accustomed to the sounds and structure of the language. In a conversation, you may find yourself mostly just listening, but take this time as an opportunity to try and decipher what speakers are saying.
2. Try try try!: Yes, you will make mistakes. Awful mistakes. You will sound funny. You will be ungrammatical. You will accidentally say something profane when you actually just wanted to conjugate the verb “to throw” (true story). These things will happen but they are roadblocks in every language learner’s journey. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t learn from them. Up here, the opportunities to practice are never lacking, so take advantage of them. Whether asking for directions, shopping at the market or ordering a 12-inch-er at Subway, you can take these moments to give your language abilities a try. Supportive peers with which to practice make all the difference.
3. Treat yourself to a dictionary and a grammar: It may seem pedantic to leisurely read through a French grammar book and/or dictionary, but doing so gives you an extra advantage. My favorite thing is recognizing a word I read in the dictionary in real-life.
I think of these guys as my instruction manuals. For me, it helps to take note (mental and physical) of any new words or grammatical constructions which I encounter. That said, I am not writing notes every time I am in the presence of French speakers, but when I notice something which strikes my fancy, I make sure to take note of it. Once I get home, I flip through my instruction manuals to investigate. Practice is always the best guarantee, but every now and then, you need to do a little research. For those who don’t wish to splurge on books, online dictionaries and grammar sites do just the trick.
4. I know it hurts, but avoid English when possible: One of my biggest challenges has been my coursework in English. Before I begin to start sounding blasphemous, I’d like to clarify that I love studying at Concordia, in English. But being submerged in English classes and assignments makes it easy for me to put French on the back burner. After all, I complete my assignments in English (except in my Spanish class) and my professors teach in English. After one long day at uni, I find that I haven’t uttered one French sentence the entire day! So, I have to put in the extra effort to make sure that my French machine stays well oiled. When not in school, I challenge myself to speak as little English as possible. This is not always easy, yet in order to really master this new language, I have to at least make the effort.
I would like to emphasize though, that there is no need to become a martyr. I do speak English outside of school because to not do so would prove incredibly limiting. After all, I need to adequately express myself, something I cannot yet fully do in French. But like the Tin Man (what can I say, I love the Wizard of Oz), the new language you are learning will rust without constant maintenance and attention. Without constant practice, you will not fully develop into a fluent speaker.
For anyone planning to study abroad at Concordia, Oui Can Help is a free service provided by Concordia for students looking to practice their French. Oui coordinates various events and sessions which are designed to help those with little knowledge of French. This is a hands-on French language lab, in which through conversation, you get to experiment with your French to see what works and what doesn’t. Best way to get better is to practice, and that is what this organization is all about.