It was a mixture of amusement and delight in the old woman’s eye as I struggled for the words in French. At our bed and breakfast in rural Quebec, there were six homemade jams before me and a breakfast plate with hot crepes which had my name on them. They just needed me to choose their fruit dressing.e
At the table, the cast was a motley crew. There were two English unilinguals (read my wife and me), our 11-year-old daughter who has been at, or near, the top of her class in French Immersion since Kindergarten, and our hosts, who spoke French, of course, and virtually no English.
I started rhyming off some of the flavours she put in front of me, en français, thankful that I could speak in a string of single French words instead of having to struggle to put it all together. She laughed and I caught a look of appreciation in her eye, for at least attempting to bridge the language divide. She said a few sentences to my daughter who nodded, smiled, and rather effortlessly replied. That was the way of things for the duration of the time we stayed there.
We have been driving across Quebec and in this instance we are in the village of Cap-Chat on the St. Lawrence Seaway’s south shore. The pace of life is slow here in the Gaspé Region. Not slow in the pejorative sense, signified by our frenetic lifestyle of smart phones and Twitter. More the slow that experts are telling us these days that we need to ‘get back to,’ allowing for reflection and thoughtfulness. The folks in Cap-Chat – like our bed and breakfast hosts – seemed to know this stuff intuitively.
Here in rural Gaspé it seems very few people bother with English. That’s no different than the multitude of people in rural and small-town Ontario, where I come from, who rarely leave the comfort of their small, geographic area or the English language they were taught to speak.
Even at her current level of expertise, my daughter has bridged that divide, as thousands of other Canadians have. Now, thanks to this vacation, she sees with her own eyes – and hears with her own ears – the value of learning a second language.
We know that learning a second language will improve her efficacy across all subjects, for instance. And sure, there will be better jobs in the future for her, compared to her unilingual peers. But the greatest benefit lies in the more intangible. It’s the fact that she can connect with ease to the French people she encounters. She doesn’t feel isolation or feel culturally lost as we make our way through the largest province in Canada. She has more power — power to ask directions coherently; to understand a joke; to order fluently from a menu. It’s a priceless gift, bilingualism, and yet only 17.5 percent of us can carry on a conversation in both English and French.
With everything going according to plan, someday my daughter will graduate high school, having taken advantage of the opportunity in the French Immersion system through her school journey. I hope she will find time to nurture and maintain her bilingualism, to make the connections that will open doors to a world that will be all the larger and richer for her efforts.
Whether or not she’s working in two languages – or just dressing her crepe with the right jam in rural Quebec – she will be all the happier for the choice she made to know Canada’s two official languages.