The French language has been a constant in my life since the day I was born, and my relationship with it has always been a peculiar one.
I was born in Alberta, Canada, to an anglophone father from Newfoundland and a francophone mother from Franco-Ontario. Despite the fact my father spoke no French aside from a selection of gros mots that his father-in-law taught him, my mother was fierce in her dedication to raising her three daughters as French-speakers in majority English-speaking Alberta.
As such, I was raised speaking both English and French from the moment I was born. My father spoke to me only in the former, my mother only in the latter. Unsurprisingly, this caused me to develop a rather… unique language that was all my own.
“Frenglish” is the best way I can put it. I thought, dreamed, and spoke in a blend of both languages. In my mind there were two words for everything, and if I couldn’t remember one I could use the other interchangeably.
The results weren’t always spectacular.
Also contributing to my language difficulties was my relationship with words outside my home. At home I spoke a bizarre blend of French and English, always hearing something different from each parent. Outside, it was almost as disjointed. Living in a majority anglophone province I mostly heard English spoken, but every sign and product I saw was in both French and English. Two words for everything – exactly how I thought and spoke. I felt justified.
My French kindergarten and francophone elementary school perfectly fit into my linguistically binary world, albeit my teachers suspected I had a language learning difficulty due to my odd way of speaking and writing. French at school, English in public, bilingual literature, bilingual home.
It wasn’t until I hit junior high that I began to feel the divide between me, my peers, and Canadian society that was was almost exclusively English-speaking. Despite still being in French Immersion, most of my fellow students spoke barely a lick of French, forced into the program by their parents.
The peer pressure began to set in. I only spoke English with friends. When they complained about the French program, I did too. I became more focused on developing my English-language skills than my French.
Even at home, the language suffered. I was the only one of my siblings who decided to stick to the French program past elementary school. I spoke French with my mom when we were alone, but never besides that, as my father and two sisters weren’t bilingual and found it irritating when they couldn’t fully understand what we were saying. English now dominated my home and public life, and French was largely relegated to academics and when my mom wanted to have a private conversation with me in a crowd of people.
When I graduated high school, I received a diploma that certified me as bilingual in French and English in the eyes of the Canadian school system. I was proud to have completed 12 years of schooling in French, but felt an odd sense of “What is this going to do for me in life?”
My time at university that followed was my first time studying completely in English. I had the option to take French courses, but wasn’t interested. I took German instead.
Moved out of my childhood home and surrounded by English-speakers, my French language skills suffered. They got worse when I moved to England and I even stopped being exposed to the odd cereal box or parking sign in French. It hurts me now to think, but back then I didn’t care. I felt oddly liberated.
I started to associate French with my childhood, awkward teenager years, and painful time at high school. With the confused feeling of being a French speaker in a part of Canada that shunned it. When I stopped using it, in my strange young adult mind it felt like a part of growing up. Shedding my complicated French Canadian identity with a new one I was forging in Europe.
It’s not like I stopped caring about languages. I was incredibly committed to improving my deutsche Sprache abilities, a dedication that landed me a post-graduate internship in Dresden, Germany. After my time there I somehow found my way to Budapest, where I threw myself into learning the notoriously difficult Hungarian language.
I only found my way back to French when, quelle surprise, I met a Frenchman in Hungary. Having been made fun of for my accent on a trip to Paris back when I lived in the UK, I told him I could understand French but had troubles speaking it (not a total lie, given how long it’d been since I’d spoken it regularly). I began to read French books again and speak it to myself at home, but felt too ashamed to have an actual conversation. Still, it was my first step to getting back in touch with one of my maternal languages.
The relationship didn’t last, but I slowly began to fall back in love with the French language. I began to appreciate the way it sounded, the way it was written, the little words and expressions I’d forgotten. I started dreaming in French again.
For various reasons I’d decided it was time to leave Hungary, but I knew I wanted to stay in Europe, with my goal being the elusive European citizenship. As I’d made strides in re-learning the language, and as the country had strong ties to Canada (making it easier for obtaining visas), I chose to move to France.
In France, my relationship with the French language changed drastically. After years of living in countries where I spoke well enough, but not good enough to be fluent, I was in a place where I understood everything down to the fine print detail. I could have conversations with strangers, hold my own at the immigration bureau and tax office, go to the doctor’s without the need for Google Translate. I could make friends with locals easily, and find jobs that weren’t limited by my language skills.
French went from being an element of my childhood to my key to independence. Sure, I still get the odd remark about my accent, and it took a while to learn all the different vocabulary and slang that the French use that French Canadians don’t, but I feel very confident in my bilingualism and like it has allowed me to integrate into French society in a way I never could of if I’d arrived without speaking a word. Living in France and speaking French every has allowed me to reconnect to that part of my identity after years of trying to bury it.
All that said, it is still a work in progress. In some ways, it has made things even more complicated.
I am French Canadian, but was raised in an English-speaking part of Canada with an anglophone father. I speak primarily Parisian French, while my mom and her family speak franco-ontarien. I am ethnically French, but still identify as Canadian. I support the Québécois and other French Canadians and feel culturally close to them, but am unsure they’d ever consider me as one of them. I live in Paris and French is my maternal language, but I am not French.
My identity – linguistic, cultural, and otherwise – is disjointed and ever-changing, and I don’t think I will ever have a relationship with French that is not complicated. In fact, I suspect it will only get more complex, if things like living in France longer than I did in Canada, marrying a Frenchman, raising French children, or taking French nationality ever come into play.
But I am done fighting or trying to classify it. I accept it for what it is – an essential, important, frustrating part of me that I can’t change and wouldn’t even if I could.
What a wonderful post! As an American who grew up in Mexico and Perú, I also came of age with mixed cultural and linguistic identities. But after feeling for years like I didn’t quite “fit in” anywhere, now I see my mixed upbringing as a gift. I may not have as definitive a cultural identity as many of my friends, but I’m also a lot more adaptable when encountering new languages and cultures. So hats off to you and your complicated relationship with French! The best things in life (like love) can’t be defined or classified anyway.
Thank you so much for your comment! It’s touching to hear from someone who had a similar experience as myself, and who has such a positive view of having a “mixed” identity. It’s true that being raised this way is a gift. I am thankful that my fluency in two languages allows me to communicate with so many more people, and find that learning two languages at a young age has made it easy for me to learn foreign languages as an adult. Even if my relationship with French is messy it’s definitely a big part of me and something I will always be grateful to have.
LikeLiked by 1 person