A QUEBECER IN TORONTO

A QUEBECER IN TORONTO

I thought I was bilingual—until my new friends fell down laughing

FRANGÍS CHALIFOUR March 22 2004
A QUEBECER IN TORONTO

A QUEBECER IN TORONTO

I thought I was bilingual—until my new friends fell down laughing

FRANGÍS CHALIFOUR March 22 2004

A QUEBECER IN TORONTO

Over to You

I thought I was bilingual—until my new friends fell down laughing

FRANGÍS CHALIFOUR

I WAS IN Quatre-Saisons restaurant (called Four Seasons here in Toronto) with a few acquaintances. All English-speaking, by the way. It was three years ago, when I was fresh from Montreal, my hometown. At the time, I thought I was perfectly bilingual and bicultural. I was not aware, however, that my accent left much to be desired. I ordered a “chest” of chicken with “raped” cheese on it. I said it was because I was very “angry”— and everybody laughed at me. I thought these new friends were pretty mean—I was, after all, trying my best to speak their language—but I didn’t say a word. I just thought it must be their British sense of humour, a hold-over from the colonial years. Then to be courteous, I guess, one member of our group said “bon appétit,” and I replied “up yours,” which does mean à la vôtre, literally translated from French. Two of my friends were on the floor—they couldn’t stop laughing at me once again. This was one of my first contacts with the people we in Quebec call English Canadians.

I have to admit that incident, and subsequent far-too-frequent interactions, did very little to build my confidence in further pursuing lively banter in Her Majesty’s tongue. Still, I learned from them. In fact, I eventually discovered that my English was almost as bad as Jean Chréticn’s (even if that’s almost impossible, which I managed). I wasn’t about to burst into tears, but I then realized I’d wasted all the Saturday mornings of my youth. I had passed the time watching terribly boring educational programs such as Mr Dressup and Sesame Street on CBC TV when I would have preferred playing Lego or tag outside with my buddies. “Where are the fruits of all those hours invested in English television?” I still ask myself incredulously about all that misspent time and energy.

However, I refused to relent. I thought that my accent was, perhaps, a lost battle, but not a lost war. I thought of the Marquis de Montcalm, who should never have cried Wolfe. My goal was clear: I desperately wanted to improve my English. And so—a little like the American pop icon, Britney Spears— I did it again. I invested yet more of my time in Canada’s other official language. I watched Peter Mansbridge on The National, to be informed like a real English Canadian. I read one of the Toronto daily newspapers. I bought a Canadian flag and a Maple Leafs T-shirt, drank tea, and tried to say eh! at the end of each sentence. I even bought Anne Murray and Shania Twain CDs.

This went on for eight days and I started to dream in English. Then, my brain asked me to stop. My CD player seemingly couldn’t take any more either and stopped working. It was just too much. I needed to have some French. I was thirsty for French intellectual knowledge. So I turned the TV on to Radio-Canada, wore my Canadiens de Montréal T-shirt, ate three Jos. Louis in a row, and drank a refreshing Pepsi. As is Quebec tradition. What a truly emancipating feeling! It was like taking off a pair of tight Marks & Spencer shoes.

I don’t want to say it’s impossible to become an English Canadian when you’re born Québécois, but it is pretty onerous at times. To do so demands a substantial amount of patience, motivation and concentration. However, some have done it quite well. I think of Yann Martel, Pierre Trudeau, Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen (who are veritable icons in English Canada), and Celine Dion (who’s much better when she sings than when she speaks, people have told me).

I tell my Toronto friends that, sometimes, I would like to stop pronouncing English like a Quebecer, but they say it’s part of my identity and, apparently, it’s quite charming. They call it a distinct accent, while I call Quebec a distinct society. Maybe we have a different perspective of this country called Canada. Yet despite our divergent views, we have the same hopes and dreams: love, a house, a car, a good job, good friends, etc.

Today, my English is much better than it was three years ago. I hear and understand the difference between “Harry” and “hairy,” “come at” and “come to,” “angry” and “hungry.” But this was not before I ended up in many embarrassing situations. One of the worst I can recall was when I was not able to distinguish “ace” from “ass.” Obviously, such a situation has great potential for serious misundertanding—particularly when you are speaking to your boss.

I could now move back to Montreal with a different point of view of Canada, but most of all, of Canadians (a little bit like Gaulois chez les Romains). I have really good English Canadian friends in Toronto. Their French, to be honest, is pretty bad (can you believe they can’t even distinguish the difference between “baiser” and “baisser”?). But language is not a big deal, after all, as long as you try. I’ve certainly tried. That’s the best thing we can do, if we want these two solitudes to become some kind of a strength and a richness. Because, as you know, when you become older and wiser, la vie, c’est toujours mieux à deux. fifi

Francis Chalifour teaches at College français in Toronto. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca