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Pourquoi apprendre le français?

December 7, 2012

Une amie francphone m’a demander: “Pourquoi apprendre le français?”

As a kid, a strange green puppet named Dimontou was my first exposure to this foreign language. When I was a teenager, I got to go on a 2 week exchange to Joliette, QC. I’ve been to Montreal for 4 or 5 times now but am dying to check out Quebec City in winter and to experience Carnaval de Québèc. I’ve always loved winter, and it is utterly charming to combine a snowman mascot, tire d’érable, and an ice hotel into one vacation. No?

Tire d'érable

Tire d’érable; maple syrup taffy made by pouring hot maple syrup onto fresh snow. Yum!

I have been trying to keep up my French skills by writing or talking with french-speaking friends, and have for a while realized I’d need to do much more than that to approach bilingualism. I would like to join an adult french conversation class, or take a medical french course, but being as transient as I am right now, it would impossible to even figure out in which city I should take a class.

One downside to travelling so much (usually to work in Nunavut, to Ontario to visit family and friends, and sometimes for holiday) is that I can’t commit to anything. I was frustrated by this for a while and could see it inhibiting my ability to sign up for interesting activities, like a French class. I was desperate to do something as I am not often around my French-speaking friends these days and feared that I would lose what French ability I was privileged to have.


I have no idea who this French teacher is, but this photo depicts what learning French in grade 1 was like, almost exactly as I remember it. You can see Dimoitou looks a little sad here. But he’s always happy to help kids from the 1980s learn Français!

I’ve tried Rosetta Stone, but the basic levels were too grindingly boring for an intermediate like me, and the emphasis seemed to be on learning vocabulary like “cat” and “dog” rather than on speaking and getting the flow of the language. I finally settled on Rocket French. I bought the first 2 of 3 levels, and am very slowly ticking away at the exercises. There’s a big emphasis on speaking and pronunciation, with dabblings of cultural enlightenment and a slow enough introduction of new words that I haven’t yet been overwhelmed. (No this isn’t an ad! This program works well for me because I already have a foundation in French, but I think it would probably be really frustrating for someone new to the language!)

But the question is ‘why do you want to learn French?’ For me, it’s not a simple answer. I don’t need it for a job, although it might look good on a resume. I don’t live in a French-speaking community and rarely do I see Francophone patients, although when I do it is fun to try and talk and gesture to learn about and help manage their medical issue in an awkward medley of Franglais.

French Medicine

I have no idea what this French energy tonic from 1915 is all about. I don’t think I would even if the ad were in English.

I have used it clinically with mixed results. I’ve assessed and arranged treatment for a patient with an esophageal blockage [with a lot of help from a bilingual nurse] and did the discharge education for a patient who had a GI bleed and TIAs [using some combination of his wife’s bits of English and my French]. More recently I clarified a medication list for a French Catholic priest and we concluded the appointment after sharing some jokes about patient autonomy.

Unfortunately, my broken French isn’t always adequate. I remember struggling to tell a woman about an unwanted pregnancy. Not knowing the word for pregnant (enceinte) I had to tell her “you are with baby” (“vous-etes avec bébé“). In another case, a woman told me she came to the ER because of “champignons.” I knew that word, it means ‘mushrooms.’ I struggled to realize that she meant ‘fungus.’ I thought of Athlete’s foot, or some fungus on her skin involving some other part of her body. It was only when she pointed that I realized what she meant: yeast infection. Oh.

It is a big place. About 23% of Canadians speak French as a first language. (

While it would certainly feel a lot less horrible to stop having a quizzical look on my face when a French patient is trying to tell me their story, it’s not the only motivation for improving my language skills. Here’s what I wrote to my friend, polished up a little. Please pardon the sporadic accents, I’m still trying to figure them out on my keyboard – and pardon the terrible French, because as you know, I am still learning.

“Je voudrais apprendre français parce que je pense que je peux! Le raisonnement est une combinaison de l’utilité (pour le voyage ou le travail ou pour parlant avec des amis comme toi), la beauté de la langue, un defi (I had to look that up!), et une croyance que tous les Canadiens devraient essayer un peu de leur langue seconde. J’ai eu la chance d’avoir des bons professeurs de français et d’etre exposés a français à une age jeune; j’avais l’impression que c’était dommage si je ne l’utilise pas, et plus mauvais si j’ai le perdu”

I forgot to tell her how much I like cheese. That alone is probably a good enough reason to learn French.

Use it or lose it, just like so many other skills in Medicine and life in general. This language is too worthwhile for me to let it go.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon-Pierre permalink
    December 7, 2012 9:43 pm

    Thank you Jess. I am part of a group that struggles to define itself. I am part of that 23% of french-speaking Canadians you are referring to. Or in another way, the 90% of french-speaking Quebeckers. Hardly a day goes by without asking myself; do I truly believe in this idea of a multicultural Canada ? A place where two distinct societies (believe me they are: and not only from a linguistic perspective) live on a shared land working towards common prosperity ? All this while operates a “regionalization” of the country and when progressivism suffers from a wave of conservatism ? More and more, I believe so. As long as more than a few people still believe in the incredible richness of sharing cultures, there is hope for the country.
    Je te lève ma pinte de sirop d’érable, et te remercie d’encourager cette idée des tolérances et des pluralismes. Et dis moi lorsque tu passes par Québec, on ira donner un coup de pied au derrière de Bonhomme !

    • December 8, 2012 12:09 pm

      Without wandering too far into discussion of a separate nation, I am one of the (?few) Anglos who really hopes Quebec remains a part of Canada. I personally feel enriched for having been exposed to this culture.

      I was shocked when I moved to BC (briefly) in 2000 and began some highschool there. I don’t know if I ever told you about that brief attempt of my family to move to BC, but it didn’t last long. Anyway, the ‘shocked’ part of it was that these kids did not learn French in elementary school. They had to take a language in highschool, and German and Japanese were the glamorous options much lauded over French.

      While I know it is unrealistic for all Anglos to learn French and all Francophones to learn English, I think the opportunity must be provided early on. We know from great linguists (like Chomsky) that kids have to hear and phonemes under about age 10, or they’ll never be able to hear or make those distinct noises. For me, early exposure meant both a foundation in the language and also the beginnings of being curious about French and Quebecois culture.

      I will never know what it feels like to be French-Canadian.

      The exchange I went on was two-ways. After 2 weeks in Joliette, ma jumelle a passé deux semaines à Thunder Bay. Je pense qu’il etait une expérience révélant pour elle aussi.

      Probablement une exposition tôt et les parents encouragent leurs enfants à être curieux de la culture québécois est la clé.

      Je pense que nous devrons utiliser “embrasser” ou “saisir” (if either means to embrace… non-romantically) au lieu de “tolérer”; “tolérer” est comme “we have to put up with it” (suffrir ou supporter?). Il n’est pas une question de le souffrir mais de celebration.

      And please don’t kick Bonhomme! He is creepy but cute.

  2. December 8, 2012 2:23 am

    Sounds like a month in Paris is in order Jessica.

    • December 8, 2012 9:19 am

      I would not mind. I never have spend much time in Europe, and not a day in France. A lot of roots of Canadian history, wonderful food, and breath-taking art can be found there. So I hear.

      Just have to find time and a good excuse to go! Quebec City is actually higher on my “must travel” list right now, but that’s mainly due to my obsession with the winter festival and stereotypes (fun ones!) of ‘Canadian’ culture it showcases.

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