Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 17, 2012
I have read with interest the views of Phamus Provencher on Quebec’s seemingly endless language debate (“French immersion didn’t prepare me for the real world”, Gazette, July 9, 2012, op-ed). They quickly brought to mind my own experiences in this province as an Anglo – Quebecer that were in some manner similar to those of Mr. Provencher while in other ways very different.
Born in the working-class suburb of Verdun shortly after the Second World War, my first recollections are of a community linguistically divided. At the time, most English – speaking people did not speak French and so whatever communication there was between the two language groups depended on the semantic abilities of the francophones. Each community had its own schools and churches; indeed, some even had their own streets!
My family left Verdun when I was ten, yet similar de-facto segregation continued in other parts of Greater Montreal. I attended English-language schools (although not French immersion like Mr. Provencher) where we were frequently taught French by well-intentioned pedagogues who quite often themselves struggled with the language of Molière! The end result was that while I studied French, I did not speak it.
Ironically, despite living in an overwhelmingly francophone province, my first serious exposure to the French language came when there were absolutely no English language options left available to me. That time came when professional hockey entered my life. I was all of 14 years of age.
As an ardent Canadiens’ supporter, I followed as many of their games as I could. It was the 1961-62 season and I faithfully watched all of the Habs’ Saturday games in English, their only televised games at the time. However, their Sunday night away games were always broadcast on the radio. There was just one problem – they were broadcast just in French!
So it was every Sunday night at 7:00 P.M. that my real French lessons took place. Granted, I wasn’t speaking the language but my comprehension quickly improved by leaps and bounds. The forceful, well-enunciated voice of the late and gentlemanly René Lecavalier surpassed any second language learning experiences I was having in my high school French classes at the time.
My first and strongest recollection of those marvellous French-language transmissions was hearing that the Jean Beliveau or Bernard Geoffrion or Dickie Moore had scored. Immediately after howling “il compte” into his early 1960’s radio microphone, the usually very reserved Lecavalier always played a quick ten second musical extract from “O Canada!”. I quickly came to associate that glorious sound with yet another Habs’ goal. All that was left for me to do was to add them up!
Well, the hockey season passed and my French language comprehension skills had improved considerably but, alas, Montreal didn’t win the Stanley Cup that year either.
Time passed and other interests came to me. As it would happen, I fell in with a group of French – speaking students from Quebec City. It was 1968 and I was all of 21. Most were studying at Laval University and, to this day, I don’t remember one being incapable of communicating with me in a next – to impeccable English, a situation that did nothing to aid my now stagnant French comprehension. I was back at square one.
Eventually, I returned to Montreal from my university studies in Ottawa and settled in a small Victorian row home in the centre-sud ward of the city, not too far from Lafontaine Park. I lived there from 1975 – 1988 and I am not exaggerating when I assert that I was the only non – francophone in the neighbourhood. Needless to say that, due to simple necessity, my spoken French improved quickly and dramatically as the years passed.
I suppose the point is that the best way to learn another language at an advanced age (any age over ten!) is, as most of us have discovered, not at school but in the community itself.
For my part, to this day, I continue to listen to my hockey games in French, as do many other anglophone Montrealers I know. It’s at least one step in the right direction. I only wish the Habs would win more often