I wish I spoke French. I really do. Back home in Ontario, everyone laughs when I tell them I’m studying English and German in Montreal, but yet can’t speak French and I have to be honest-I really don’t have a good reason for my apparent resistance to my country’s second official language. But let me get things straight: while it may ultimately be my fault for not learning French, McGill and Montreal certainly did not encourage me to learn the language.
First of all, there’s the obvious problem of McGill’s “student bubble.” McGill is an English-speaking campus, cloistered in the (largely) English-speaking McGill ghetto, and surrounded by a hub of businesses and cultural attractions that cater to English-speaking students and tourists. I realize that many of the people around McGill speak French in addition to speaking English, but it is difficult to break away from the stereotypical English-speaking McGill student when bilinguals immediately switch over to English at the first hint of incomprehension. I really tried to speak French off-campus when I arrived at McGill armed only with my grade nine French skills, but the keen embarrassment I felt when French-speakers rapidly switched to English when speaking to me led me to abandon these attempts in favour of the comfort of my native language.
My other serious attempt to learn French came in the form of a required language course for my program. I could have chosen any language-what a perfect chance to learn French-but once again, McGill interfered. If you want to enroll in a French language course at McGill, there is a mandatory placement test that you must complete before even registering for a class. Again, this was in first year. I was daunted by the online Minerva system course registration system, by the fact that I had to frantically refresh the log-in page for half an hour in order to sign in and fight for the courses I wanted, and by the idea that, if I chose French, I would not even be guaranteed a place in a French class (plus the embarrassment of actually sitting through a placement test). Needless to say, I chose a language that did not require a placement test, German.
So here we come to the real reason that I have not bothered to learn French. Had I not taken German, I would probably have plucked up the courage and enrolled in a SSMU minicourse (or something of the sort) to improve my French. Now, however, German has taken over every vocabulary word and every verb conjugation I ever knew (I sometimes give a friendly “Danke!” to a fellow Montrealer, only to realize with horror that I meant “Merci!”). There is no more space in my brain for French, and I’m loath to give up my precious little German to accommodate for it. I’m not ashamed of loving German, but it does make learning French that much harder.
I know it’s silly to try and justify myself for something that is fundamentally my responsibility for neglecting. I feel selfish enough every time a waitress comes to take my order, or someone asks me for directions, and I stare at them with that blank expression that stamps “English” across my face and prompts them to immediately adopt the language that suits me. The funny thing is, I probably will get around to learning French at some point in my life, but it probably won’t be in Montreal, and it won’t be at McGill.