From Calgary to Montréal and back: Re-imagining my linguistic selves (by Erin Reid)

This week’s blog post comes from Erin Reid,  a Ph.D. Candidate at McGill University. Erin is generally curious by nature about most things, but has been fascinated by languages and language learning since she began studying French in a Calgary elementary school in the 1980s. After her mother wisely enrolled her in a late immersion French program, Erin ended up moving to Montréal some years later. She earned her BEd in TESL at Concordia University, and then spent a year teaching classes of 44 grade one students in Taiwan’s public school system. It was in Asia that she first encountered Buddhism, sparking a profound interest that led to not only spending the better part of a year at a Zen monastery, but also to completing an MA in Religious Studies. Currently she is pursuing doctoral studies under the guidance of Dr. Kevin McDonough in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill investigating the role of religious literacy in second language pedagogy in higher education. Her academic background along with her eight years’ experience as an educator in the McGill’s Department of Language and Intercultural Communication have led to her current interdisciplinary research. In 2015, she was greatly surprised — and delighted — to be the recipient of the award for Distinguished Teaching in McGill’s School of Continuing Studies.

1982 — Calgary

My ten-year-old self is crying in the arms of my French teacher, Mme Jahn. She’s the only teacher who realizes how hard it’s been for me this year: new city, new school, newly separated parents. I’m a quiet kid and good at school – the kind that is easily overlooked because she’s no trouble. But Mme Jahn sees me and sees in me a natural aptitude for French, though I’ve always suspected that it is more likely her compassion that drew me to the language than any real affinity for the language. In any case, her recommendation to my mother to enrol me in a late immersion program for junior high school opens up a new world of real and imagined possibilities and changes the very course of my life.

1994 – Montréal

It’s a hot summer night at the end of August. The streets of the Plateau are teeming with apartment dwellers escaping the oppressive heat of their third-floor walk-ups. I wander up the Main with newly made friends who are eager to point out all the marvels of this city, and I can’t believe the vitality that exists here. The subdued suburbs of Calgary (where I never really learned all that much French) have not prepared me for this place where so much life happens in public: people sit, talk, drink, have fights on balconies, or even just pull up a chair on the sidewalk if there’s no balcony to be had. Folks flip between French and English with dizzying frequency, and there are line-ups at the bagel factory at 4am! I’ve come here on a whim…I should be back in Victoria completing my studies, but I decide that first night to stay – maybe for six months or so. “I’ll improve my French” is how I try to sell it to my mother back in Calgary. And my love affair with Montréal begins.

1998 – Montréal

My French is getting better, and I’m still in love with this city and all things Québecois. I’ve made conscious choices to associate with francophone circles, though not exclusively. Still, the identity struggles of francophone Québecois youth resonate with my own emerging sense of self, and I know I need to figure out a way to stay here. I randomly take a course on bilingualism and am instantly hooked, thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm and passion of Mela Sarkar, who was not quite a doctor at that time. And so begins my career in TESL.

2001 – The Laurentians

I’m leaving Montréal! I’ve been hired as an ESL high school teacher at a rural private school. My first real teaching gig. Though I’ll miss my beloved city, I get to live out my fantasy of living in the country, biking to work every day, breathing the fresh country air. And just think how my French will improve! Yes, I’m the only Anglophone in this school…and it doesn’t take long for me to realize what an outsider this makes me. Teaching 15-year-olds is not for the faint of heart, but lunch hours are the most dreaded part of my day. The other teachers are pleasant, but no one ever invites me to join them at their table. A few months in I stop trying to make friends and take to driving to a local diner for a ‘hot chicken’ sandwich every day. I don’t last the school year and vow never to teach again. Montréal takes me back into her arms.

2007 – Montreal

Much to my mother’s better judgment, I begin studying acupuncture at a Montréal CEGEP. Again, I’m the only Anglophone around. I’m impressed by the amount of support for non-francophone students, and I spend hours at the tutorial centre, but I struggle with the language more than I’d anticipated. Every lunch hour, I share my table with a Romanian, a Chinese, and an Iranian student, along with Virginie, a young woman from Shawinigan who helps us all with our writing. With a Cuban husband, she is uniquely attuned to the needs of second language learners. After I give a successful oral presentation, an instructor comments that he’d never realized how smart I was because my French writing is so terrible. I laugh it off because I know it’s true. A few months later, I drop out.

2008 – Montreal

I’m broke again. Completing a MA in East Asian religions was a fascinating journey, but I’m at a loss as to how to get a decent job, let alone how to repay my looming student loans. Someone suggests applying to teach ESL at McGill, given I have a BEd in TESL and an MA. I revise my former decision regarding teaching and am offered a job on the spot for 4 times more money I’ve ever made. I discover that not only do I love this job, but I’m good at it. Years fly by. My French gets worse every year at this primarily English-speaking university. Although I remain somewhat connected to francophone circles, I start admitting to myself that I’ve given up trying to master French. It seems it will never be good enough, and I can’t be bothered to try anymore. And the truth is, I don’t really need it.

2017 – Calgary

I’m leaving Montréal. The tenuous nature of contract teaching has lost its appeal, my mother in Calgary is now 81, and the stars just seem to be aligned in that direction. As I begin the process of leaving my home of 23 years, I am reminded of Benedict Anderson’s socially constructed imagined communities, full of potentiality, hope, and connection. As an L2 learner who lost much of her motivation along the way, I find myself wondering if, as Bonny Norton has suggested, my eventual lack of investment in mastering French was a result of the failure to actualize my own imagined identity as a French-speaking Montrealer. Still, all is far from lost. My six-year-old son has a Québecois accent and searches for words in English, a product of total immersion in his francophone school. He’s already signed up for the French school in Calgary, and I know that my own level of French will be an asset in that city, instead of the liability it is here. The truth is I don’t know if I’ll ever improve my French, but I can certainly keep imagining…

 

References

Anderson, B. R. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Norton Peirce, B.(1995) Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29 ( 1) , 9-31.

NORTON, B. 2001. Non-participation, imagined communities, and the language classroom. In: M. BREEN (ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research. London, Pearson Education, p. 159-171.


This ongoing blog series is one of the projects of the BILD research group.  We invite you to contribute to our blog or submit to our journal, J-BILD.

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