Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Visiting Bilingual Quebec

Recently I returned from a short vacation to Quebec with my daughter, her father and his 2 cooks (he owns a Thai restaurant). Quebec, as we all know, prides itself on speaking French as its home language and English as its second language. I was very excited to visit and get a chance to practice my high school French. How'd it go? Hmmm. Well, in Quebec, all conversations begin in French and when they hear you reply in French they continue rather rapidly in French - I of course looked like a stunned deer in the headlights and would quickly interrupt - with some English. The astonishing part to me was how the speaker would then continue in English effortlessly - and quite fast, I might add. The transition from one language to the other was remarkable. In addition, difficulty understanding the spoken English due to first language interference was minimal. In other words, the accent didn't matter all that much. Native Quebec speakers truly appeared to me to be bilingual; how they maintain that level of dual language proficiency is remarkable. When you drive through the city, Quebec does not seem to be bilingual - street signs are only in French, and, as mentioned before, people initiate and maintain conversations primarily in French. Where does that bilingual foundation develop? Without knowing too much about Quebec, I'd guess home and school. The home language for most people appeared to be French, but English must be a dominant language in the school for there to be such fluidity. There also must be a very strong emotional connection to French, a reason for maintaining the language despite the proximity and dominance of English in surrounding provinces and countries. Learning about the history of Quebec City, I realized that the wars between the French and the English way back when may have never been forgotten or forgiven, which is just the impetus needed for French to remain the dominant language; without the emotional attachment and support not only from the government but also from the citizens, French could never maintain its dominance.

Lessons to be learned? Maintaining an emotional tie - and pride - to the home language is a must in order for children to keep motivated and expand their home language. In addition, children must be exposed to the language in all skill areas: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Attending church, listening to music, watching television and YouTube videos, and sharing stories from home are all valid resources to be exploited while maintaining a home language.