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Frenglish, the real official Canadian language Hein?

I'm 39 years old and have lived in Quebec all of my life. I grew up in Aylmer which is located directly across the river from our national capital. Most everyone was considered to be bilingual…whatever that means. I've only met a handful of people that I can truly say are fully bilingual. Otherwise, one will be stronger in one of the two languages, or one will turn out to be like me; the Jill of two languages but the master of none. I'm FRENGLISH!

On paper, I'm definitely French. My full name is Marie Micheline Suzanne Richard. You can't get more French than that. I've been to French schools most of my life, at the exception of when I went to university, which was in English. At home, though both parents were brought up in French, my native tongue appeared to be tossed by the waste side and English ruled the roost. My older siblings (family of nine kids - another French Canadian trait) seemed to have mastered both languages. However, by the time I came around (numéro 8), focus on either language seemed less important.

I attribute this primarily to the decline in the education system. My mother, one of the few true bilingual people that I've encountered, was appalled at how the French was being taught in schools. I recall her making blatant statements to that effect. This dates as far back as to when I was in grade two. I've yet to decide if the education system is fully to blame or if it was more her statements that gave me the excuse to study less, causing me to not absorb the language to the best of my ability. I also have a third reason that has caused me to not want to acknowledge and embellish in my native culture….

The year was 1972. I was in grade two, playing in the schoolyard. There were many kids that were in the same predicament as I was: An English speaking person attending a French school. I recall chatting (in English) with one of my classmates when a teacher came along, telling us that we are in a French school and therefore we must speak French. I remember being quite offended by her statement. I also recall pointing out that we were at recess and that I had the right to speak whatever language I chose. I don't recall what happened after that. I do, however, recall feeling quite resentful. The resentment I had towards that teacher and the French speaking community in general followed me throughout high school. I somehow managed to get myself placed in the high levels in French class and remained there (mostly by cheating) until I hit my last year. I actually failed the secondary IV Ministry exam - twice. The teacher opted to advance me to sec V regardless, under the condition that I be placed in a lower level. I failed the exam because it was based on my understanding of the language via an excerpt from the book Kamouraska which is written by a prominent French Canadian writer: Anne Hébert. I found myself not being able to cheat. My truth stood there before me. At this point, I had spent 10 years of my life in a French school and only grasped the bare minimum.

Meanwhile, I spoke English, but rarely had a chance to practice it formally. Reading was limited to Archie comics and the odd Mad magazine. My only other source was TV. Though I excelled in my English class, my vocabulary was limited. Let's face it, Gilligan's Island and the Brady Bunch were no Shakespeare.

Since leaving high school, I made repeated attempts to improve my French. I felt this burning desire to be what my birth certificate stated what I was…French Canadian. However, the damage was done and for whatever reason, I never managed to go much further with the language than when I left high school. I was convinced that I was a failure as French Canadian.

On the other hand, speaking and writing in English always came easy to me. However, never being formally educated in that language and not making any efforts to improve my vocabulary, i.e. reading, I would often block when attempting to communicate my thoughts or feelings. My situation did improve when I attended university, ironically while specializing in Communications. However, that was not sufficient and I, therefore, would still find myself constantly alternating with both languages. I had been sitting on a fence all my life. When speaking with people, especially in French, when I would find myself searching for a word I would switch to English and vice versa. When I would apply for jobs that required a strong knowledge of the French language, I would be turned away. Interviewers would not tell me directly, but I would get the point when, 2 minutes into the interview, they would say: "are you more comfortable in English?" Respectively, writing memos or essays in English would "reek" of my French background.

Culturally, my heart goes to both places. This is very frustrating and confusing. WHERE DO I BELONG? My lineage tells me something, but my heart leads me to another place. This would become more of an issue, especially surrounding elections and, more so, referendums. I've been scolded so many times by purist Québécois and been called the cause of the breakdown in the French culture. I've often been told that I defected, that I'm a traitor. That I should be more involved in my French culture, since I'm supposedly pure French Canadian. I find myself going back to that day in grade school and telling these single minded racists that I am free to do what I want and bask in whichever culture I care to be immersed in. That no one can force me to speak or function in any language. I just about lost it the day bill 101 came out, when all English signage was removed in Quebec. Imposing a language or culture on someone is just wrong!

On the opposite side, when English people hear my name, they question it immediately. It doesn't take them long to discover that I'm not quite like them. My thinking is not quite the same. Though I don't get as much flack from the English, I still feel offended when I hear them knocking down the French…"Hey, that's my culture you're pissing on", which will often be followed by "ostie!"

This has plagued me most of my life and now I've decided that I'm not French nor English. I'm Frenglish! I have sufficient knowledge of both languages to enable me to communicate to both cultures comfortably…simultaneously, hein?

© Micheline Richard

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