The life of an English speaking Montrealer growing up in the Western part of the city in the 1950s was not very different from the life of English speaking North Americans elsewhere on the continent. To show their commitment to our new homeland, my parents decided that they would speak only English with my brother and me. I went to English school, had only English friends, listened to English radio and watched English television. As a result, by the time I turned seventeen in 1962, I was effectively a unilingual English speaker.
Of course we had French at school. I passed all my French classes with good marks, but I could not function in French in the real world. Most of the one million English speaking Montrealers of that day were not interested in communicating with their two million French speaking fellow citizens in French. English was the language of business and the dominant language of the North American continent. I was no exception to this general attitude. We were hardly
aware of the larger French speaking city surrounding us. This all seems extraordinary now, but in those days it was quite accurate to talk of “two solitudes” in Montreal.
I should point out that the reality of Montreal has changed in the last forty years. English speaking Montrealers are now among the most bilingual people in Canada. French has been made important and meaningful to them because of political changes in the Province of Quebec. As a result, Montreal is a vibrant city with a unique atmosphere of its own.
There is an important point here. Obviously it is an advantage for a language learner to live in an environment where the second language is spoken. However, this does not guarantee language acquisition. You must have a positive attitude towards the language and culture you are trying to learn. You cannot learn to communicate if you rely on a classroom where the focus is on trying to pass tests. Only a genuine desire to communicate with another culture can ensure language learning success.
At age seventeen, I entered McGill University. One of my courses was on French civilization. It was an awakening. I found the course fascinating. I suddenly became interested in French literature and theatre. With that came an interest in French singers, French food and the ambiance of French culture. I was suddenly dealing with the real language and real people. Our teacher was really French, not an English speaking person teaching French, as in high school. The texts we read were real books, not French text books specially prepared for language learners.
Perhaps because it was new to me, French culture seemed more free and spontaneous than the English speaking North American culture I had grown up with. It was an exotic new world. I suddenly wanted to learn French. I went to French theatre, made French speaking friends and started reading the French newspapers and listening to French radio. I became aware of the issues that concerned my French speaking fellow citizens and, through attending meetings and discussions, my French language skills improved naturally. I also gained an understanding of the aspirations and grievances of the French speaking Quebeckers.
The six million or so French speaking Quebeckers, descendants of a few tens of thousands of French settlers in the 17th century, had developed into a conservative and inward looking society as a means of self-protection against the growing influence of English speaking North America. The French language and the Catholic religion were the pillars of their identity.