French: A Lifelong Language Struggle (by Dairn Alexandre)

Kananaskis in Red (original artwork by the author)

Dairn Alexandre (a pseudonym) is a regular BILD guest blogger; for more information about Dairn, and to read his earlier posts, click here. Dairn has taught in Quebec and now works as a teacher in Alberta, where he lives with his wife, two kids, and dog.

My relationship with the French language has historically been problematic.

Even during my early years as an Anglophone kid in the English schooling system in Quebec, I had a series of seemingly ineffective and incompetent French teachers. This skewed how I perceived the subject, since I found little to no success in those formative years of learning the language. Eventually, my mother was my French teacher in grade 4, which made dinnertime conversation about our day at school awkward. By that point in time my lack of success with the subject coupled with my growing frustration with trying to catch up with the other students in my class made me resent learning a second language altogether. It was really tough to make any headway when everyone else seemed to be learning so effortlessly. 

In an attempt to not fail her youngest child – the only one of her three children that she would ever teach in her 30-year career – my mother tried to support me in my studies both at school and at home as best as she could. Except that language was something that needed to be acquired slowly over time, not intensively drilled into someone over the span of one year. And even though the professional and ethical thing to do as my teacher would have been to fail me, my mother just couldn’t bring herself to do it. This would have likely resulted in me having to repeat grade 4, since French is a required course in Quebec and failure was certainly a possibility for Quebec students in the ‘90s. Not only that, I needed a certain level of French proficiency in order to graduate high school. I realized early on that there was no way I was going to be able to do any of this. I barely eked by, getting marks that always teetered on the brink between passing and failing. I rationalized that learning French didn’t matter to me. I had decided early on that I was not going to live in Quebec, so learning French had no utility for me whatsoever. Ultimately, my goal was to survive and then move as far away from Quebec as fast as I could. 

And I almost succeeded. Until the day that I didn’t.


As far as I knew, when I left for Florida during the summer of 2001, my days of learning French were behind me. I can still vividly recall my parents sitting on the chesterfield in their doublewide mobile home in Cape Canaveral. It was early July, and my brother was hurriedly trying to squeeze into his old wetsuit while I was packing our surfboards into the back of my parents’ ‘98 Ford Windstar.

It was the summer right after I finished high school, and I had just been accepted into a three-year design program at Dawson College in Montreal for the following September. This was to be my final vacation before I needed to move into a shabby apartment above a pharmacy in the Plateau area of Montreal and begin working as a lifeguard at the Royal Saint Lawrence Yacht Club, earning money to help pay for art supplies and other course materials for the fall. 

We had almost left for the beach that afternoon when my parents received an unexpected phone call from my high school: I had failed my final high school French exams, all four of them. I needed to either return to Quebec to complete a remedial summer course or take grade 11 again the following year. My parents – both of whom were elementary school principals at the time – were livid. Not just because their child had failed a critically important class, but also because they now needed to cut their summer vacation short and drive back two full days from Florida to Quebec after having arrived in the Sunshine State only seven days earlier. 

I was freaking out. If I had failed these exams after struggling with French my whole life, what chance would I have of passing them now?

To describe the long, shameful drive back to Quebec as tense would be an understatement, one that glosses over the truly uncomfortable silence that hung over our tattered little minivan as we unceremoniously moved along the Eastern Seaboard. I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I had learned early on during that trip back to Quebec that showing any hint of emotion other than despair would result in conflict from my parents and violent bursts of aggression from my older brother. As someone that could best be described as a volatile toddler on a good day and an insufferable prick on a bad one, my brother was particularly miserable and resentful during this time together. His sweaty visage stared angrily at me for hours on end, hate pouring from his eyes as my parents drove along. I alone was responsible for my family’s misery during this time, and I knew that I must tread lightly. 

Early on in our journey, my brother had made a claim to the much sought-after middle section of our vehicle and had stretched out his legs accordingly. He also had the habit of unbuckling his seatbelt to fully recline and then sleep for long portions of the ride, which I indirectly supported in order to get a reprieve from the glowering I had been receiving. I tried not to drink water, since the risk of needing to use the washroom and, hence, waking up the slumbering beast was too high. Working through my dehydration, I was relegated to the cramped back section with little leg room or space to call my own. It all felt fittingly miserable. For me, this was my penance for the sin of language failure.  

What a disappointment I was to my family, particularly for my mother, a French teacher. How embarrassing I was to all of them.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to suddenly pass a subject that had long eluded me in such a short period of time. But somehow this feat was not only possible, it was eventually achievable. In hindsight, this perceived achievement in the remedial summer course likely had less to do with my sudden aptitude for understanding and conversing in the French language and more to do with my parents – thankfully – being good friends with the summer instructor assigned to teach me. I have had the nagging suspicion over the years that perhaps bribery may have played a role in my eventual academic success that summer. However, both of my parents have repeatedly denied this unsubstantiated accusation.

In any case, I did ultimately pack up and move out west once I finished my studies, swearing that I would never come back to Quebec – the province I had once called home but had never really felt at home in.


I often tell my colleagues and friends in Alberta that my self-imposed exile from Quebec to the prairies 16 years ago was due to my poor grasp of the French language. Half-jokingly, I would describe to others how I would regularly communicate with Francophones using very simple sentences made up of only nouns and unconjugated verbs. And if that failed, I would often resort to pantomiming actions and making rudimentary sounds with my mouth to communicate my wants and needs to others. This was my daily battle in Quebec.

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to finally learn French, starting from the very basics. For months now, I have worked my way through Pimsleur courses and Duolingo lessons, building my capacity to understand and communicate in French at a very basic level. And my success feels glorious.

My wife – a former French teacher herself – often scoffs at any attempt I make at practicing my newfangled set of skills out loud with her. My English accent bleeds through thickly and inarticulately, which she has described as not only primitive but fiercely unattractive. But I am no quitter. Despite her insistence that I never speak in French in her presence, I continue on with my studies, listening to my lessons on my old iPod while I do the dishes every night. I will speak French, I promise myself nightly. I am committed.

Honestly, I have been looking forward to writing this blog entry for some time. As my children entered an early French immersion program at their school and practiced what they were learning in their respective classrooms at home with their mother, they quickly surpassed my very limited abilities with speaking and comprehending the language. My history as an anglophone living in Quebec – moving to western Canada because of my inadequacies (perceived or real) with the French language – has been an ongoing fight. And while I have struggled with feelings of whether I ever belonged in Quebec, I didn’t want to feel like an outsider within my own family again – especially not now with my own wife and young children.

And for the first time in my life, maybe, I won’t.

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