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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Do you speak Punjabi?

"Comment t'appelles-tu?"


"Quel âge as-tu?"


But my three-year-old son flashes that amazing grin; and so despite his clear lack of understanding, he's accepted into the group of Francophone kids. Perhaps they think he's made a joke.

Today, I thought back on my days of teaching English as a second language to adults living in Parc Extension. They came from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Before any given course would start, I would receive dozens of phone calls asking for more information. Often, the speaker on the other end of the line and I would speak in French. Once a man called and all I heard at first were papers shuffling in the background. Hello, hello? I asked, over and over again. Finally, he sighed and stuttered the one phrase he was more or less sure of in English: "Do you speak Punjabi?"

I laughed at the time. What were the odds that I would speak Punjabi? But sillier mistakes were to be made on my end. Like the time I recognized a Hispanic accent in the broken English of one caller and excitedly asked, "Hablas espanol?" "Si!" He replied enthusiastically before rambling off sentence after sentence of the beautiful language. I then had to stop him and sheepishly admit that no, I personally did not.

It's funny to me how there is a slight personality shift when we speak a foreign language. After my first year of university, I spent a year in France, where my Anglo accent was "cute" and my efforts to speak in French, even in the most touristy places, were "charming." As a result of this feedback from perfect strangers, I broke out of my bookworm shell a bit, became much more sure of myself, daring, even flirtatious. It was fun to adopt this new persona, when the only thing that had really changed was the language that I was speaking.

Montreal and its bilingual citizens have a personality all their own, too. Dropping foreign words into conversation is not pretentious here; it's an effort to achieve the ultimate in understanding. Because one language might have a word that fits your meaning better than another. My husband once laughed over a colleague's use of a "new verb" during a meeting: budgeter (a regular -er verb, of course—why go for anything more complicated?). But that colleague relayed the meaning he was going for, and more importantly, everyone in his audience understood what he was talking about. 

Perhaps it wasn't such a far stretch for that Parc Extension man to expect me to speak Punjabi, in that neighbourhood of Montreal. But he was also making an effort to learn English; and I am continually impressed by the number of adult immigrants who already speak multiple languages and come here ready to learn two more. I've always wanted to learn German, and Arabic, and Japanese. And after meeting that man and having him in my ESL class, learning about him and his family, and doting him with a shy but charming personality (perhaps just his English-speaking persona!), I had to add Punjabi to the list.