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My Fling With Français

A building in Quebec City. Photo: Kaya Shimizu

HOST, CECILIA BLOTTO: Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language and decided Duolingo just wasn’t cutting it?  As part of our series of Personal Perspectives, Samuel Eli Shepherd describes a time he took the concept of “language immersion” to a whole new level.

SAMUEL SHEPHERD: Growing up in Toronto, I had an insecurity that most Americans don't consider: je ne peux pas parler Francais. I can't speak French.

Canada has two official languages: English and French. Every student attends French class through Grade 9. To get some federal jobs, you must be fully bilingual. 

But…I did not learn French. The only phrases I remember from grade school are: est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes?  Can I go to the restroom?

Then I moved to Montreal for undergrad, where French is the primary language spoken. When I’d try ordering from the menu at a restaurant en Francais, the server would roll their eyes and respond in English. 

My final year of studies, I started panicking. How could I prove myself to a future employer with just one language? A friend told me about a government-sponsored program called J’Explore, where English-speaking students could practice French with host families in northern Quebec for a month. It sounded perfect. 

So, that summer, while my classmates were embarking on expensive graduation trips across Europe, I boarded a bus, heading two hours north of Montreal to a college campus by Trois Riviéres, eager to learn French.

Our first day, we gathered in an auditorium, and pledged to speak French at all times. The professors explained that if we were caught speaking English more than once, we’d be sent packing. 

Our days were filled with classes, sports and scavenger hunts, and Big Brother was always watching. There were rumors that some students were narcs, waiting for you to slip into English and turn you in. But it also felt like a bit of a farce. The pandemic forced us to live with each other, not local families, so instead of being surrounded by native French-speakers, we were anglophones cosplaying as Quebecois. 

In the shadows,when we were safe, we secretly chatted in English. I met a woman from a small town in Ontario who opened up to me about difficulties in her childhood. On a hike through the tall pine trees, I became one of the first people she ever confided in. 

I don’t remember every lesson of passe composée, but I do remember sneaking off one evening into the city with my roommate to grab poutine at a local dive bar. He told me about his relationship troubles. And when he and my friend from the hike started dating the following fall, he credited my cleverness for bringing them together.

So maybe I’m still not the perfect bilingual Canadian, but I learnt to overcome my French insecurity that summer by recognizing what I am good at: I’m a person with the ability to embrace the uncomfortable, to adapt, and to forge connections in even the most unfamiliar places. And if those aren’t the language skills employers are looking for, well,  je ne sais quoi. Merci beaucoup for the life lessons, Quebec!

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