Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Immigrating to Montreal: A Tale of Two Worlds

This is a tale of two worlds. Six months into our move to Montreal, I feel fragmented, like I need one of those time-turners that Hermione used in Book 3 to manage her busy schedule. Some days I feel like this is truly a different country, complete with its own, separate language (and I have to say, Quebecois French is certainly in a league of its own), and sometimes I feel like I'm just in a 51st State of America.

Buuuuuut...then I read the NYTimes and am quickly reminded how strange and unusual the U.S. has become and I wonder if everyone feels the same as I do right now, even if they haven't just up and moved.  I suppose everyone's world has changed.

Navigating Montreal for me feels like entering and exiting many boxes, the path between them lined in snow. Most days I wake up in my anglophone home and send my big girls off to French school and my little girl off to English school, and soon after I head off to Francisation.  We all wear boots.

Walking down the street can be a completely different experience every time, depending on who I'm walking behind.  Just as I'm straining to understand what the French speaking couple beside me is saying, another couple walk by having a lively conversation and I suddenly feel like I understand the language perfectly. Then I realize they are speaking English.  I stop in Caisse Desjardins to do some banking, and the teller and I struggle through our transaction completely in French.  I feel victorious!  Then, I walk into a cafe and order in French with a perfectly formed sentence (Un cafe regulier, s'il vous plait) and the server replies in English.  (How do they know???)  Crossing guards?  I hedge my bets and say 'Merci' in three languages.  Every job posting I've seen requires (or strongly encourages) bilingualism, and yet there are parts of this city that only speak French and parts that only speak English, and never the twain shall meet, it seems.

Arriving at my francisation class, I feel at home.  Everyone around me is an immigrant and we're all attempting to learn French together.  The big difference between me and them, though, is that they are all pretty much on their third language, and many have come from extreme circumstances and war-torn countries.  Me, I just came from the 'land of plenty', the American Dream where I always felt comfortable in my own skin and language.  Now, it depends on which box I've just entered and whether I'm speaking fluently in English or at a Kindergarten level in French.  It can be quite uncomfortable to be an immigrant, looking for the right work, looking for the right words. Luckily, I'm in a place that is welcoming.  My free French lessons are taught by one of the best teachers I've ever had, 12 hours per week, rain, shine or snow.  The big girls are quickly acquiring their new language, although I'm not sure they realize it yet.  It's not just study-abroad though.  After everything that was involved in this move, we're here for the long haul.  Six months in and it's too late to turn back, and too soon to feel truly at home here.  Is this what everyone feels like when they move countries?

I do have a new appreciation for my Mother Tongue and all the different words I can use to express myself. In French, I feel neutered.  I completely understand why my four year old's sentences are often mixed up in her attempt to express herself completely.  The difference is, a) it's cute when she says things and b) she'll forget this process as she acquires her language.  I am fully cognizant of my process of learning to speak French and it's more embarrassing than cute.  And the times I just want to be quiet, retreat and listen because my expression is so limited, are the times I have to force myself to speak, solely for the practice of forming words and not because I have anything particularly interesting or useful to say.  "Do you like the good weather we are having?"  "Bien sur!  J'aime porter mes chaussures plus que des bottes!"  (I'm sure I need to insert the subjonctif in there somewhere...)

I write all this knowing that things take time.  Knowing that in another six months, or a year, I'll have a different story to tell.  It's uncomfortable being new, being uninitiated.  It ain't easy being green!  It also engenders in me a deeper degree of empathy for immigrants, even as I experience only a fraction of the uncertainty and upheaval that an immigrant or refugee from any other country must feel.



Julia said...

I love your post and revised bio. Hugs and bisou.

mama s said...
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smiley gene said...

This is great! Love it. Been through it ourselves (we went to France when we were both 36, experienced much of what you say here). My own take on language assimilation (I don't like the expression "language learning" because it places the process into the box with algebra, computer programming, astronomy, etc.) is that, as you rightly observe about your children, the crash through happily making mistakes and self-correcting en route method is the BEST. The books and charts of conjugations and vocabulary lists may (MAY!) have some value, but your own brain is wired to assimilate a language from those around you using it, and that from way back when you were swimming around in amniotic fluid. We come out of the womb recognizing voices, and immediately begin to form a network of syntax, vocabulary, intonation, etc. internally that is like a ball of aluminum foil or knitting strings to which we just keep adding and adding for a lifetime. If you have come to have such dexterity and facility in the language in which you composed this blog, believe me that that very same process, those very same innate skills you were born with, will take you to fluency in French as well. If you relax and "play" as your children do, and not give a fig about whether it "sounds right" to others or not, or at least not derive your sense of self-worth from whether you got through a sentence error-free or not. I know, I know, this sounds hopelessly idealistic. But since France I've learned two other languages in addition to French, well enough to teach, preach, and understand others in them (Baoule, and Spanish, so I feel confident that I know something about what I'm talking about. It'll take a couple years--not just a few months--before you really feel "at ease" in French. In the meantime, you'll have ups & down, peaks and plateaux. It is the latter that I found the most difficult: I'd go forward for several weeks, assimilating huge swaths of harvested language skills . . . and then seem to not advance at all, again for weeks. I found television (which I usually HATE) to be very helpful, maybe because you have many of the dynamics of language interaction -- sight & sound -- without the responsibility of having to respond verbally yourself. Sometimes that's a nice break from the more demanding -- and potentially humiliating -- chore of interacting verbally with native speakers.

One last anecdote, a joke on me: in French,as you perhaps have learned by now, the word for "sin" is peché (or pechée, I forget now, 20 years later). When we went to Spain in 2001, I noticed how many words in Spanish were similarly derived from Latin with their neighbor-language French, and plunged in using the "crash and learn" ideology and practice that I urged above, here. At a church small group Bible study one night soon after we got there, we were discussing sin. I offered my little piece, saying in Spanish something like "We Christians don't like to admit we have sins. We hide our sins and pretend 'I don't have sins in my life' and we think we are fooling others. But everybody can see we have sins, just like everybody else does. So there is no point in hiding them; we might as well admit openly, "I have sins, great ones, huge ones . . . " and about that time another American present, married to a Spaniard, asked me in a lowered voice, "What are you trying to say?" and I told him, in English, what I just wrote here. But, what I had done was assume that if peché(e)in French means "sin" then the Spanish word for sin must be pecho. However, in Spanish, pechos means breasts. !

Nora Boudamdan said...

Bonjour Elizabeth,

Très beau texte effectivement et de belles réflexions sur le statut d'immmigrant et le processus d'apprentissage.
C'est important de ne pas te sentir "embarassed" quand tu parles français, même si tu commets des erreurs. L'erreur fait partie de l'apprentissage. Il ne faut pas se décourager, on ne finit jamais d'apprendre une langue, on l'apprivoise, on la découvre, on la décrypte tous les jours.

Garde ton enthousiasme pour apprendre et comprendre le Québec, il a encore pas mal de surprises pour toi!

À demain!

Your girls are really cute.

Kori said...

So well said. I remember during my first few months in France feeling as if everything I could say was so...neutral. That is good. THAT is good. That IS good. That is GOOD. No colloquialisms, no nuances, no cabinet in my brain filled with synonyms from which to draw out the best term, just emphasis on the subject, verb or adjective. I remember being so thrilled when I learned my first bits of slang, I overused them to the point of nuttiness.