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New BILD member Kate Hardin is a first-year PhD student in Education Studies at McGill. She holds a master’s in linguistics and European languages from Die Freie Universität in Berlin. Her research interests include cross-linguistic pedagogy, newcomer education, and adult/community language programs. At McGill, she plans to investigate the language learning of adults with limited formal education. Outside of the university, she’s an avid cook, a friend to every dog, and a fiddler who makes up in enthusiasm for what she lacks in skill.
My name is Kate, and I’m a recovering monolingual.
My partner and I moved to Montreal in September. In many ways, the experience has brought us back to 2012, when, after finishing my bachelor’s, I received a grant to teach English at Cherepovets State University in Russia. Despite a minor in Russian, I was far from ready to live my daily life in the language. My degree had left me with just enough speaking ability to get myself into trouble that I couldn’t talk my way out of. Still, I was determined to make the most of this opportunity to master the language.
For me, the summer before we left was a frenzy of flashcards. But my partner, having already exceeded expectations by agreeing to follow me to the taiga, made no preparations beyond some half-hearted efforts to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. He joined the chorus proclaiming that once we arrived, we would be immersed in the language and would have no choice but to pick it up. If only it were so.
The city of Cherepovets was unknown to Westerners other than the steel executives who occasionally visited its massive metallurgical plant. In some ways, that was a good thing—there was no expat community to shield us from the local language and culture, as might have happened in a larger city. But so far off the tourist track, we couldn’t find a single teacher of Russian as a foreign language. To make matters worse, in my university department, English and German were the working languages whenever I was around –our workdays flew by too quickly to accommodate the stumbles and false starts of my Russian. Desperate, I shunned grocery stores in favor of the local market, where I could at least cajole the vendors into making small talk.
Without the guidance of a tutor, my partner and I became a case study in differing approaches to language learning. I spent most of my waking hours at the university, stealing time between classes to pore over a downloaded frequency dictionary and bartering with everyone I met for lessons. My partner, on the other hand, relied on his formidable interpersonal skills to get by with just a handful of random words (Hedgehog. Adventure. Mushrooms), making an astonishing number of friends in the process. We both passed countless hours lingering over tea with new acquaintances—our upstairs neighbors took to keeping a dictionary next to the kettle.
I learned a lot other than Russian that year. People in Cherepovets, unaccustomed to foreigners, weren’t always sympathetic to our communication struggles. Always the “quiet perfectionist” type of language learner, I had to get used to making a fool of myself in order to communicate. My skin thickened as I learned not only to tolerate their occasional scoldings, but, when circumstances required, to scold back. I learned to be patient with myself and, when I didn’t get what I needed, to regroup and try again.
Back home, these lessons didn’t often come in handy until I enrolled at McGill. Knowing how easy—and what a waste—it would be to spend five years in Québec and never learn the language, my partner and I decided early on: Montreal speaks French to us. That decision ushered in a new phase of our experiment in language learning. Once again, small talk is an accomplishment. Once again, my desk is buried under piles of flashcards. The tinny sound of French-dubbed sitcoms provides a constant soundtrack to my partner’s wanderings around the apartment—and if there’s one thing we have plenty of, it’s time to wander around the apartment.
Montreal and Cherepovets may seem to have little in common beyond the weather, but for me, there are crucial similarities. As before, I find myself learning a new language while living with an English-speaking partner and spending most of my time in English-medium classes. But one difference can’t be ignored: Mere days after I accepted my offer of admission, Montreal went into lockdown. We arrived several months later, just before the second wave chased everyone from the parks into their homes for the winter. In the red zone, French is all around but always out of reach.
That being said, the health precautions do have their advantages for newcomers. I’d been warned that many Montrealers will change languages if you show the slightest hesitance to speak. While my experience in Cherepovets prepared me to deal with strangers’ criticism, it didn’t prepare me for that. I don’t know how to insist on stumbling through a conversation when an obvious alternative is so close at hand. But to my surprise, this hasn’t really been an issue—no thanks to my language abilities. I’ve noticed that people tend to blame breakdowns in communication on the masks and Plexiglass barriers. My “Euh, pardon?” elicits a good-natured gesture of shared frustration, then they repeat themselves—loudly and slowly. The barriers take the blame, and I get off scot-free.
Some bright shining day, the Plexiglass will come down, and I won’t be able to hide behind my mask anymore. By then, I hope to have had enough practice to make the most of the awkwardness that comes with learning a new language. After all, I may be new here, but I’ve also been here before.