Culturally, my youth was representative of Canada's two solitudes. I learned basic French at school, however, all of my social experience was again entirely in English. At the time, it was unclear to me what an incredible gift bilingualism is, and it was only when I went to a bilingual College (in Quebec, we attend College or CEGEP for 2-3 years prior to entry into University) that I began regretting the lack of attention to my second language.
The subsequent years were spent studying and working in an English-language University, and with the exception of a handful of friends and acquaintances, interacting entirely in English. The language wars raged in Quebec during those years, with Bill 101 and Bill 22 the rights of the English language diminished, and society fractured through separation referendums. While I fully believed, and continue to believe to this day, in the distinct character of the province and the imperative of protecting the French language in a sea of English, I could never understand separation as a means of achieving those goals. Ultimately, fatigued by the language wars, and its economic and social cost, we decamped to Alberta. During our 8 years in Calgary, my French language skills were rarely exercised.
But here is where things get interesting. When we moved to Geneva in 2005, J was 2. Geneva is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and C2 and I were delighted to settle into this culturally and linguistically-rich part of Europe. We resisted connecting with other Canadian or American groups deciding instead to integrate as much as possible with our neighbours and fellow villagers. We sent J to the local French school where for the first year, all he said was "oui" (yes) and "regard-moi" (look at me), and we seized the opportunity to become as bilingual as possible.
My language skills with the help of tutoring improved dramatically and rapidly. Within a couple of years both J and I were functionally bilingual. By the time we left Geneva for Melbourne in 2010, I was determined that neither of us would lose our skills. There was one primary school in Melbourne that offered an innovative bilingual French program for native speakers. I
We resisted moving to Perth, even though it was clear that we should have been here from the beginning, in large part because of our commitment to J's language acquisition. He worked hard to earn those skills and they remain a high family priority. However, we did come to Perth four months ago. Where am I writing this epistle to bilingualism? At the Alliance Française de Perth, the language and cultural epicentre of all things French in most major cities around the world.
In English-speaking Perth, J goes to after-school French school once a week, just like my Hebrew-, Greek-, and Italian-speaking friends did when I was a child. I come once a week to a conversation class, and we all speak exclusively French at home on Mondays. It's not perfect but I hope it will suffice. I remind J every Monday as we walk into the Alliance, that one day he will thank me for insisting he speak French. Maybe then we will move back to Quebec.