The French Connection

Posted on Tuesday 9 October 2007

I was cleaning up my basement office a couple of weekends ago and I came across an tired, old copy of a photocopy of a copy of an article obviously taken out of a book. It’s title was called “Le Instant French“, by Stephen Phizicky. It brought back a lot of memories…

One of the unique things that makes us Canadian, is our nationwide angst over the French Language. I know all sorts of people across this great country, from one coast to the other, each and every one of them has a very distinct opinion, usually at one end of the spectrum or the other, about it.

I first learned French in High School, and I really loved it. I was paranoid about pronouncing it perfectly. I even tried to attended extra classes to ensure I spoke it properly when it came time to recite a chapter in front of the class. After school, I never had the opportunity to speak French again and slowly my skills started to disappear.

As the years went by (way too fast in my opinion), I fell in love and married the girl of my dreams. She was originally from Quebec and spoke French and English fluently. We married in Quebec City, where I met and tried to converse with many of my new in-laws who spoke only French.

I embarrassed myself terribly one evening when I called one of her Aunts, whose name is Marie-Paule, “Marie-Pool” which every one there heard as… “Mary Chicken“… They also took great glee in having me try to say some of the more “interesting” locations in Quebec – like Chicoutimi… The decision to stop speaking French followed quickly there after.

The greatest insult, I actually heard later, when my lovely wife told me that one or two of them were quite upset that I was an “Anglo” and couldn’t speak French. They predicted and complained that if we had any children, they too would speak only English as well. (I am extremely pleased to say that they could not have been further from the truth on that one!!)

I also discovered just a few years afterwards, that I had an unfortunate quirk with languages, I could only retain two languages at a time. While in the military, I studied a third language for a full year. It thoroughly corrupted and destroyed whatever was left of my fading French skills, and started to mangle my English as well. (There is something to be said for learning a second language when you are young!) Big Grin

Years after my French had been laid to rest, our family moved “across the river” to a city in Quebec called Gatineau. I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity for me to “recover” what French I had left, and possibly even improve on it, or better yet – become bilingual – an awesome idea!

I quickly discovered a problem. Gatineau, for the most part, is a bilingual city, with French being it’s primary language of commerce and communication. So whenever I would “try” to speak French to a sales clerk, neighbor or even a local kid I would stumble and stall (trying to find the right word or phrase). They would quickly switch over to English for me. Which was great for communication, but it kind of sucked ’cause I wasn’t learning anything! In the end I gave up again…

As an aside, it was during our time in Gatineau that both my young daughters became fluently bilingual and to this day still retain their second language decades after leaving Quebec.

The hardest part with being married into a French family, was the conversation or actually the lack of it! While my wifes immediate family was bilingual, and I could converse with them in English, most of the outlying relations were not. Plus the family would slip in and out of French without even thinking. I would quickly get lost or left out of the conversation.

I met some of the most interesting people whenever we visited her family in Quebec and while my skills in understanding French improved, I could not converse with them. All conversations were heavily dependent upon my wife being able to translate for me.

Years passed, and while I lobbied heavily at work to go on French training (the Federal Government insists now that all its managers be fully bilingual) nothing ever happened. I was never sure if it was because I was indispensable or if I had just ticked off too many of my peers and seniors and that this was my pay back.

I can no longer remember how it happened, or when or where I received that old photocopy of “Le Instant French” but it was a huge eye opener for me. It changed my attitude towards trying to speak French with some of my in-laws and all at once I was conversing. Certainly no where near a native speaker, let alone someone raised in Quebec, but I was able to start getting my ideas across. It was liberating.

So now I struggle along when I can, and put up with the odd “say Chicoutimi” barbs that get thrown my way, because now I can talk to some of the most wonderful and interesting people in her family. I’m sure they get tired of my “Instant French” (I know I can get tired trying to put it together). But I can now converse with an amazing gentleman from Sept-Isles when I see him, or tease my brother-in-laws wife and/or boys. It’s great!

All this liberation from a silly little article written some time in the past by a gentleman by the name of Stephen Phizicky. Thank you Stephen!

I searched diligently to find the article on the web, but have had not luck. I also searched to find out who Stephen Phizicky was, but found nothing concrete. So I have transcribed the article and put it on my web page for all who would like to understand and learn how they too can take the first few steps. So that they too can speak French with a friend, neighbor, relative, or just the man in the street.

What has been most liberating for me. is that now I use my “Instant French” to speak with my two wonderful grandsons. They are being raised bilingual, but the emphasis is on their French language. They will go to French schools and have French homework and I speak to them in French when I can. I like to say that I have a two year-old and a four year-old teaching me French now. While I worry that my “French” could be corrupting theirs, I know that there will be plenty of teachers out there for them, to get it right. I expect I’ll be learning even more in a couple of years!

Life is wonderful!

À la prochaine!

End Article

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