I’m writing this from my brother’s house in Melbourne, Australia, where outside the window in front of me are the same (or similar) Monet-esque winter skies, red tiled rooves, and native birdsongs that I remember from growing up in Tasmania. When I was a teenager, I left Canada and moved to Australia, and by the time I was in my early twenties, I had a stronger sense of Australian citizenship and identity than I’d ever had about being Canadian. Yet, my persistent Canadian accent and the almost daily question, “Where are you really from?” caused a kind of ‘identity dissonance’: In my heart, I was an Australian with a long family history and strong cultural heritage, but I was marked as a Canadian by the way that I spoke English.
Leaving Australia and returning to Canada in 2009 was almost an act of self-rebellion against my dueling identities and an attempt to rediscover what being Canadian meant to me. I renewed my Canadian passport, booked a ticket to Montréal, and signed myself up for intensive French classes. It’s interesting for me to look back now and see the explicit links that I had made between my identity and language: more than anything else, I was fixated on the idea that learning French would be my ticket to rediscovering my ‘Canadian-ness’. It’s true that French echoes across the landscape of my Canadian childhood in memories of learning the names of animals in elementary school French class, translating the backs of cereal boxes, and trying to play with French Canadian kids on family vacations to New Brunswick. Either way, the narrative running through my head was: Good Canadians speak French. If I speak French, I’ll be a good Canadian. Therefore, I’ll be Canadian.
So I did it. I went to Montréal and learned French. Through a combination of intensive language courses and the bubble of French that I created around myself, within a year I had achieved the certificate of proficiency in French and was officially ‘bilingual’. Then six months turned into a year, which turned into another year and suddenly it’s been six years and I still live in Montréal. Yet, my journey to bilingualism was never so simple or linear. I have struggled a lot with my legitimacy as a French user, especially when people switch into English with me. At a certain point in my journey, I was treating every transactional interaction that I had in French as a test of my proficiency in French: I passed the test if the other person responded to me in French, but I failed if they responded in English. I have never felt monolingual than in the moments when people responded to my French with English. I had a lot at stake in these interactions. Because I had wrapped my identity up in my bilingualism, it was not simply a question of my proficiency in French, but it was also my identity as a Canadian that I was allowing to be determined by the language that people spoke to me. Reflecting now, I think that my expectation that everyone would speak to me exclusively in French once I spoke French to them was reflective of a monolingual mindset; in essence, I was failing to acknowledge the other person’s bilingualism as someone who could also speak two (or more) languages and be self-determining in the linguistic choices they made. I was also ignoring the complex sociolinguistic dynamic that makes Montréal so special.
Leaving Montréal has the opposite affect on me. Like Michaela, I admit that I too feel the language learner’s relief whenever I’m in an English-speaking country. Yet, somehow, leaving also makes me feel more bilingual. I use French as a (not so) secret language with my husband – French doesn’t seem to travel across a room as much as English does, so we get a little more privacy in departure lounges and line-ups by speaking French to each other. There is also the added (and slightly problematic) bonus that we avoid every Canadian’s worst travel fear: being taken as American (even though he is). More significantly, it just feels weird not hear and speak French every day, so I find myself speaking a lot more French to my husband than we do at home. It’s not always a conscious choice, either. Sometimes it just happens. We stopped for a few days in Los Angeles on our way to Melbourne to visit friends and family there. When an SUV driver ran a stop sign as we were crossing the street, I yelled “Hei! Tu a un arrêt là!” It’s not the first time French has snuck its way in unconsciously. Biking in Vancouver, I have yelled, “Attention!” when a car cut me off, and the other day, my husband apologized in French to someone he’d bumped into in the supermarket check-out line in Melbourne. And I haven’t even mentioned how wonderful it is to travel in France, where everyone speaks French and the ‘Montréal switch’ is no more than a whisper of a memory.
As a closing thought, although my French is imperfect and always will be, I’m a strong advocate for the idea that bi/multilingualism shouldn’t be based on native-like proficiency in the language(s) in question. I think my fellow BILDers would agree. I’ve always corrected my ESL students who say (in English!) that they don’t speak English and reassured them that they do speak English. So, while this sun-lover will miss Montréal’s baking hot sun and soupy humidity this summer (it is winter in Melbourne), I am grateful that in leaving, I have (re)claimed bilingualism as an important piece of the puzzle that is my linguistic identity.
I leave you with the question for the comments space below: what makes you feel bi/multilingual?