Wednesday, November 17, 2004

La Francisation

I've been taking french since I got here. The reason I gave this post the generic title above is because I'm not sure about the name of the program or the part of the government that sponsors it. It's held in schools all over the city and appears to be under the banner of the Commision Scolaire de Montréal, but that is the body that governs all the public schools here. Each building seems to have it's own schedule for signing up and availability, but they all have a consistent curriculum and advancement structure.

You can call one phone number and they will tell you all the locations near you where the programs are offered. But they don't actually know when registration is or what hours each school is offering. You have to go to each one (or phone them; an intimidating task if you're french is iffy) and find out.

In order to sign up, you must bring proof of your Canadian citizenship. A passport will not suffice. You need to bring your birth certificate, or if you are an immigrant, whatever document provides that proof. Because I was born in the states, I had to bring this card that I got as a child that is proof of Canadian citizen born abroad (god bless Canada). They went and took out this huge binder filled with photocopies of all the appropriate pieces of ID. After some sweating on my part, they found mine and I was accepted. These kind of people are extremely rigid. Even if I was Dr. Norman Bethune, without the correct piece of paper, they wouldn't have let me register.

There are 6 levels in the program and 2 written levels after that. Each level lasts 12 weeks, 20 hours per week. When I started, you had to complete level 6 in order to receive your certificate of francisation. At some point, since the summer, it was lowered to level 5. Why, I don't know. This information was unceremoniously relayed to us in the middle of level 6. The certification is nominal anyways. It's nice to be able to show it on a CV, but people will be able to tell your level of language pretty quickly by speaking with you and completing level 6 is definitely not fluency. The program costs $40 per semester, plus $5-7 per level for paper costs. In some cases, if you are unemployed, you can apply to Emploi-Québec for $125 a week in living money. Since it's so inexpensive, and since most of the people in the program really want and need to learn french, they tend to take the courses for as long as they can, whether they have received their certification or not.

The classes are held in the mornings (8:30 to 12:50) and the evenings (6:00 to 10:00). I'm told the evening classes are tough because it's for people who are working full time and they tend to be pretty exhausted. I've had 4 different teachers. Three were pure laine ("pure wool" means 100% Québecoise) and one was from Haiti originally. All were rigorous and effective teachers. The classes are dynamic and varied, so that you have many activities throughout the day. You have a grammar lesson for an hour, then you read, then you get together in groups and work on a presentation, then you do grammar exercises. I am a very antsy person and can't stand meetings and sitting in the same place for a long period of time (unless I have the internet in front of me). I was rarely bored in any of my classes.

All the teachers come from that french mold of being very severe and believing deeply, with all their heart, in the importance of speaking french properly. They will make distinctions between what is spoken, written and what is truly part of the Joual. They love their language and culture of Québec, but they think that grammatically correct french is really what everyone should learn, speak and write. They take it seriously. It's kind of funny to see the severe look they have when someone brings up a usage they heard on the street. For instance, Québecers drop the "ne" in the negative here all the time. "Je n'ai pas" becomes "J'ai pas," "je ne suis pas" becomes "shuis pas," etc. A student brought that up when I was in level 5 and the teacher acknowledged it and said it was okay for those who "trainent dans la rue" (learn in the street) but if we wanted to learn to speak like that we should go out there right now.

The students are almost entirely immigrants to Canada. In the school I was at before I finished level 6, there was one young woman from Toronto who was Canadian and an anglophone and came to Montréal because they had way more styles of belly-dancing education here than in Toronto. Other than her, the only other non-new Canadian was a guy from Edmonton. He was of Pakistani descent and studying to be an Imam. I'm guessing that there were about 200 students in that particular school. The rest were from all over the world. The majority are latinos, especially Mexicans. There are also quite a few people from Southeast Asia, mainly Vietnam. The other countries represented by more than a single individual are Romania, Turkey, Morocco and China. There was one guy from the Netherlands.

Everybody is really positive. Sitting in a classroom full of all new immigrants, many of whom have families, professions, whole lives behind them, is a good feeling. They are very positive and motivated to learn the language. There are some younger people who don't make it to class consistently, but most people are pretty focused. You really get the feeling (and hear this from them) that they are grateful that they are in Canada and appreciate the opportunity they are given. Their relationship with Canada and Montréal is obviously complex, but that's for another post. The biggest complaint is generally the winter and that's coming from people who lived in South America, so it's very understandable.

Everyone is very civilized and friendly and you make friends quickly. After you get to know people, you begin to hear about their stories and many of them are incredible. There was an older guy in my class from Salvador. Quite genial and kind of suave. He always dressed nicely, had a thick head of grey hair slicked back and wore gold rimmed glasses. He also had the deep, lined tan and thick hands of someone who has worked hard outside his whole life. I can't remember what started it, but he told the class about how he ran a small farm store in Salvador, selling seeds and equipment to the farmers in the region. He gave a lot of stuff on credit and his store became a sort of gathering point for the community. He was encouraged to run for some elected position in his region and before he even decided, soldiers came to his door one night and barged into his house and said they wanted to "interview" him about his candidacy. He didn't go into much detail, but that kind of thing continued and he and his family eventually had to flee. That particular teacher didn't like the discussion to get too political so she moved us right along. But I was thinking, damn this is the same guy who made a presentation to the class in halting french about healthy eating the other day and joked with me about how he went into a coffee shop and the servers were nude. That dude has lived a life! I know that I tend to wax patriotic too often, but it did make me feel proud to be a Canadian.

Another interesting thing that happens is that a lot of the other students have children. Well these kids are obviously learning french way faster than we are and the poor parents have to go home and get scolded by their children about their accents, poor grammar, etc. "At least I can still help them with their math," one father told me. They are producing a new wave of bilingual and maybe trilingual Canadians who in some small way will help weave the color of this country.

How's my french? I passed level 6 with 85% and am now in the written level 1A. I can now read, though slowly and with gaps. This is huge for me as it opens up a world of books, comics and periodicals that I've always been curious about. I can speak fairly well, though I need a lot more practice. My listening comprehension varies widely. I can understand most of news and talk shows on TV but can barely understand the other students in my kung fu class when they are just joshing around. I can write competently, but am a chasm away from the understanding that allows one to write the fluid, rich and nuanced french that I'm starting to love.

No comments: