Facing my inquisitor, I try to answer, but my throat closes, choking off the words. Skilled in interrogation techniques, he repeats his question. Comment allez-vous?, he enquires, smiling pleasantly enough, if somewhat confusedly. Me being stumped by such a simple question has clearly stumped him. His thought process seems obvious: If she doesn’t know any French, why didn’t she sign up for the Beginners’ class? If she does know some, why doesn’t she speak?
Ah, the incomplete impossibility of explaining — in French, at least — that my last French instruction was a 1984 class in Saskatoon; the last before that, 15 years earlier in an Alberta high school. All in all, I had seven years of French instruction: does that make me a beginner? Living out West, I never learned to parler: will my conversational ineptitude let me start anywhere other than as a beginner? Although it surely would have been easier to join the neophytes, I have braved the dreaded placement exam to answer those questions.
First, however, I must try to answer his question. This is ridiculous: surely bien will work. I start to speak but the voice in my head says, That’s Spanish, dummy! I am pulled up short this time not by my incapacity in French, but by my capacity in Spanish.
In the last 10 years, I have taken oodles of Spanish classes, studied one-on-one in Guatemala, and worked with a tutor here in Ottawa. Occasional trips to and through Québec have confirmed Spanish as my second language. Spoken to in French, my subconscious naturally throws Spanish into the breach. Gritting my teeth, I can just barely scoop up odd bits of French vocabulary from a sea of other unused high-school learnings, trigonometric functions bobbing along next to the periodic table. Constructing a grammatical response is next to impossible; providing a timely response is out of the question.
Stumbling through the rest of a placement exam as painful for the examiner as for me, I am, remarkably, assigned to the Intermediate class. We are an oddly assorted lot: 20-somethings following the standard course sequence, their book learning and conversational capacity more or less in sync; street-taught talkers who have the ear but not the grammar; old fogies like me (well, none others quite as old) with bits, pieces, and idiosyncratic gaps. On our own, none of us could pass both an oral and written test at this level; together, we know it all. Individually, we are motivated students with the capacity to do well; collectively, our disparate needs make us the sort of class that gives instructors fits.
Classes are the placement exam writ long. I cavalierly jettison pronouns (often omitted in Spanish), confidently mis-pronounce words (based on Spanish phonetics), and use both languages to form compound numbers. Indeed, rogue Spanish vocabulary pops up throughout my speech and writing. I can’t be sure whether what my subconscious filing system spits out is Spanish or French or both. Like bien, it all sounds right — and wrong–to me.
Yet the language wars have worse to inflict. Conversing with my Spanish tutor, I find that French is infiltrating that bastion. Quel horreur! ¿Que pasa? My husband speaks to my distress: think how fine it will be to speak three languages. In the small hours of the morning, my vision of the future is a little darker: a hopelessly muddled Spanish, and still no French. Lying there, I wonder whether the confusion will extend even to English, my mother tongue, in the linguistic equivalent of collateral damage. Unreasonable? Perhaps, but I’ve seen something like it before.
My 1950s Edmonton neighbourhood was a new home for a family of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. The parents struggled to learn enough heavily accented English to work in their professional fields. The older children adapted quickly, easily adding idiomatic English to their Hungarian base. The problem arose with Baby, who heard English and Hungarian from all family members, without any pattern. He was late to start talking and, when he did, no one understood him. He had fused the grammar and vocabulary of two exceedingly different languages into one, tidy, incomprehensible whole: an impressive, if misguided, effort. I think I know how he felt.
It was their family doctor who laid down the law: There was to be only one language spoken in the home, until Baby learned to speak so that others could understand him. Hungarian or English — the doctor didn’t care — but only one.
It sounds a swell idea to me. It’s been a few years since my latest classroom experience and I haven’t much progress — in French or Spanish — to show for it. So I have a proposal, based on medical advice, but recognizing that picking just one language isn’t practical. Mondays and Thursdays, everyone speaks French. Tuesdays and Fridays, English. Wednesdays and Saturdays, Spanish. Sundays — your choice. Go with Hungarian, if you like. It would just be for a little while, until I can untangle this mess in my head. I figure the balance of the decade should do it. Given that I travel a fair bit, I think we’d better be on the safe side, and make this a continent-wide protocol. What do you say? Bueno? Or should that be bon?