Why don’t I speak French?
When I travel and people find out I’m Canadian, I often get asked if I speak French. And when I say no, I’m often met with disbelief or puzzlement. How can you not speak French?—it’s a official language of your country! How can I not speak French? I’m embarrassed that I’m not a Bilingual Canadian, especially as I’m a language lover and a proponent of multilingualism. But my relationship with French is in large part an outcome of my environment. I don’t want to make any grand statements about Canadian bilingualism—this is not a post about policy. It’s a post about my personal relationship with French.
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta. Outside my home, in my predominantly white, middle-class neighbourhood, the linguistic landscape was mostly English. But my family spoke Ukrainian and engaged in a lot of Ukrainian activities (church, Ukrainian school, scouts, dancing), so my linguistic output was probably a 70-30 split between English and Ukrainian. I was always very aware of French and knew a lot of vocabulary from reading product labels and any official Canadian documents that happened to pass my way.
At school, I was first introduced to French in grade 3, and we were required to take French until grade 7. In grades 6 and 7 my family lived in Singapore, but we went to a Canadian school, so I kept up the same level of French education as my peers back home. By grade 8, when I came back to Canada, French was optional, and I opted out. I vaguely remember my 13-year-old self choosing drama instead of French as an elective, but I don’t remember talking to my parents or teachers about it. In high school I was required to take a language, but I chose Chinese, since that was already a major interest of mine.
Outside those French classes and product labels, I had little to no contact with French. I don’t remember having French-speaking friends. I don’t remember talking to anyone about how French is a requirement for many federal government jobs. I never visited Quebec or any French-speaking communities. I remember talking about the Quebec referendum at school and not understanding it at all.
All that has contributed to my being a non-French-speaking Canadian. So what does that mean? Am I a representative case of indifferent western Canadians out of touch with their French-speaking countrymates? Am I a bad Canadian? Am I lazy? Am I simply a product of an environment that exerts little pressure to learn French?
I don’t know. All I know is that I’m a Canadian but je ne parle pas français.