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June 7th 2005

Author Amy Cameron: Her life en Français!

What follows is the text of a speech given by journalist and author Amy Cameron during a recent conference for French for the Future in Toronto:

When French isn't your mother tongue, it doesn't come that easy. When you're right in the middle of exams and essays, and your French teacher asks you to participate in forced conversations with your Anglophone friends, French is frustrating. You ask yourself: Why am I learning this language? I live in Toronto. My parents are Anglophone. No one at Starbucks speaks French!

French can be difficult. I took French courses for five years at my high school, Jarvis Collegiate. But I swear to you, there is a point. I'm so happy I didn't drop my courses. French has changed my life - and that's no exaggeration.

I was 17 when I heard about a Canadian lycée in France. The school, not surprisingly called the "Lycée canadien en France," was in the south, near Nice, in the small town of Beaulieu.

France was a place I was very familiar with. On the beach, you could sunbathe almost nude. You could drink alcohol starting at age 16. French men, the Eiffel Tower, love, romantic walks on the Champs Élysées. It was settled, I was going to France!

I was fairly certain my parents would think my idea of going to France was a terrible one, but for a reason I'll never understand, they happily agreed to send me. And so, at age 18, I found myself on a plane heading for France.

The students at the Lycée canadien en France were placed with French families so we could practise our French at any time. We had to eat at least one meal with our new French families, but with our friends, in the bars, on the beach, and at school, we spoke English. That didn't make any difference, I thought, because I was convinced I was already bilingual.

I could place an order at McDonald's like a fluently bilingual person: "Un hamburger, un Coca Cola et des frites, s'il vous plaît." I could read the names of Montreal's streets and stores - rue Sainte-Catherine and Château du Sexe.

No problem. Amy Cameron was bilingual.

Amy Cameron WAS NOT bilingual.

In France, I lived in the small village of Villefranche. The first week I was there, I decided it was time to buy a baguette, because baguettes are French, and I was in France. In France, you buy baguettes at "boulangeries" - I knew all about boulangeries, because I was perfectly bilingual. What I didn't know was that, not only do you go to boulangeries to buy baguettes, but that's where the French go to gossip.

So there I was, Amy Cameron, at the boulangerie, having a long, impassioned conversation with the boulanger, or baker. I explained to him that Canadian bread is not as good as French bread - the flavour isn't as delicate, as natural, or as delicious. At the end of my five- or -ten-minute monologue, the boulanger begged me to stop. He hadn't understood me at all. He thought I was crazy.

The only thing the boulanger had understood was the word "préservatifs."
Here's why: When I couldn't think of the right word in French, I'd say the word in English, but with a French accent. I had some success with the English words "automobile," "telephone," and "television." But it didn't work as well with the word "préservatifs." I said "préservatifs" several times while I was talking to the boulanger. Fortunately, someone who really was bilingual heard me and interrupted me, explaining that "préservatif" in French means "condom." I had just explained to the boulanger that Canadian bread contained way too many condoms.


At school, we all had similar stories to tell - one guy in my class had asked the lady of the house where he was staying to pass him the "nichons" - nipples - instead of the "cornichons" - pickles. She slapped him in the face, and that was the last time they ate together.

My boyfriend, whom I got to know in France 13 years ago, told a waiter in a restaurant that he was no longer hungry because he was "plein" - in France, that means pregnant.
But after a few months, I started to express myself better. I decided to stay in France for the whole year - and then a second year. I moved to Paris. I worked in a restaurant and decided to study fashion. All my friends were French, and I refused to speak English.
I've been told that the two main signs you're bilingual are if you dream in French and count in French. By the end of my two-year stay, I was dreaming and counting in French.
Being able to speak and use French in Canada is like having a superhero power. It's a magic key, a passport to everywhere. Doors open, you discover new cultures, and when you come back to Canada with those new experiences, it's as if you were returning to a whole new country.

When the time came to choose a university, Montreal was my first choice - and I spent four years at Concordia in the plastic arts program, studying fine arts. I had to find a part-time job so I could pay for my school supplies - paint, brushes, and of course, beer. I was hired at a hardware store. It didn't matter that I knew nothing about hammers or saws or nails; I was hired because I could speak French.

In 1995, while I was still a student in Quebec, there was a referendum. Suddenly our united country, Canada, was at risk of splitting in two. I had Québécois friends. I loved Quebec. I was finally bilingual!

The debate over a distinct society was going on everywhere at the time. Yes, Quebec is a unique society, but it's my Quebec and my country, too. And so I marched through the streets of Montreal with Francophones, Anglophones, Canadians to save my country.

I got my B.A. in fine arts and decided to move to New Brunswick. It wasn't expensive to live there. I could do my painting, and besides, it was far away from my parents, who lived in Toronto.

I found a job as a waitress, but with my modest salary, I didn't have enough money to live comfortably.

My sister suggested that I try writing - why not?

A few days later, I found myself face to face with the editor in chief of the provincial newspaper. The interview was pathetic. I had no examples of my writing, and I had totally forgotten to bring my résumé.

The editor, like the boulanger, thought I was completely crazy, but when he learned that I spoke French, everything changed. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that is officially bilingual, and the newspaper needed a journalist to work in the Moncton office, a city with a population that is half Anglophone and half Francophone.

I had never published a single word, but the editor still hired me.

New Brunswick French is a bit different: the Francophones in that province are not Québécois, but Acadians.

The French spoken in Acadia is an old French, older than the French spoken in Quebec. At the same time, Acadians use lots of anglicisms. So when I took a word I didn't know in French and replaced it with an English word (but using a French accent, of course), people accepted it without question.

For example, I have an Acadian friend who is a lawyer and completely bilingual - her father is Francophone and her mother is Anglophone. For work, my friend has to travel in the Acadian Peninsula region. One day, she needed gas, and when the time came to pay, she added "Peux-tu aussi topper up le windshield wash?"

French has always helped my career. In 1999, I won an Amnesty International award for the stories I wrote during the Francophone Summit in Moncton. When I worked for Maclean's, every week someone would ask me for help with a translation or an interview in French. I was one of three people in the office who were bilingual. One of three - working for Canada's so-called national newsmagazine.

A month ago, I sold the book I wrote, Playing With Matches: Misadventures in Dating, in France and in Quebec.

My experiences in French have even had an effect on my personal relationships. I met my boyfriend in France when I was 18. Ten years later, at our school reunion here in Toronto, we met again, and we've been together for three years now. My best friends are the people I met in Quebec, at the lycée in France, and in New Brunswick. When I go on trips, I use my French. Even if I make mistakes, people respect me more for making the effort.

French continues to be a passport to everywhere; I would never have had the opportunity to be here with you all today if I weren't bilingual.

If you're interested?and even if you're not really interested, try to continue to speak, practise, and learn French. I realize that when you're right in the middle of an exam or in the process of conjugating the verb "avoir" in the subjunctive, it's a pain.

But when you're in Quebec or in France, or you meet the members of the band Daft Punk, or you're in Montreal dancing on a table, you'll be glad you kept at it.

My accent's a bit rusty, and my grammar isn't perfect, but I love this language. I love that it's possible to confuse "nichons" and "cornichons." I love the image of a baguette full of condoms. And I love the fact that I'll never make those kinds of mistakes again for the rest of my life.

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