Saturday, May 23, 2009

Linguistically Limited: Lazy? Lame?

In the Washington Post, there is a fascinating piece on the technology of translation, with Google apparently starting to dominate this business as well. A running thread in the article is a US DoD funded effort to develop handheld translators for each soldier on the ground:

It "reminds me of the old joke:

"Guard: 'Now tell me where you hid the money, or you will suffer.'
"Translator: 'Tell him where the money is, or you will suffer.'
"Prisoner: 'I'll never speak.'
"Translator: 'He says he won't tell you.'
"Guard: Putting gun to prisoner's head. "Tell him I will blow his brains out if he doesn't tell me immediately.'
"Translator: 'He will shoot you in the head unless you tell him now.'
"Prisoner: 'I buried a million dollars under the floorboards in the old woodshed.'
"Translator: Pauses. 'He says you don't have the guts to shoot him . . . .' "

As an American anglophone in Montreal, Quebec, I am often asked about: (a) my language skills; and (b) the linguistic requirements of living in Quebec. Of course, there is a relationship between the two, as (b) partially determines (a). My French skills are slightly better than restaurant-level. I can read most non-technical stuff and get the gist--signs, emails about ultimate, etc. I can ask questions but often cannot understand the answers. I had four years of badly taught and badly learned French when I was in high school, and then, apart from a trip one summer in college that included France (and dare I say Belgium or Brussels?), I did not use my French at all in Oberlin, San Diego, Texas or Vermont.

I would not have applied for the job at McGill had I not been assured that I could get by in English. I know my limitations pretty well. I have had problems learning three languages (four, if you count English), so I was assured that I would be teaching in English. Students at McGill can do their work in either of Canada's official languages, which means that I pass on the French papers/exams to teaching assistants. The only difficulty is when the rare graduate student does work in French since all of my undergrad classes have teaching assistants except the honours seminar. My linguistic limitation has meant that I have had to say no to the occasional MA student, but since I supervise more than my share of students, this is a blessing, at least for me. I have occasionally presented my work in front of Francophone audiences but in English.

In terms of life in Montreal, I live a largely un-immersed lifestyle. We chose to live in the suburbs where the population is 1/3 Anglophone, 1/3 Francophone, 1 /3 Allophone (immigrants who probably speak 3 languages). I have both English and French programs on my satellite dish, and watch the English. I see movies in English, I listen to English radio stations (which must play 1/3 or so Canadian content), and, when I go shopping, the person usually says "Bonjour/Hi" and then goes with whichever language I use in my response. When I get stopped by the police and ask if the interaction can be in English (I could probably understand it en Francais, but with a high risk encounter, I want to be sure), the response was once given "I don't have to," but then the cop continued on in English. The tax forms (and parking tickets) are the most bilingual publications of the Quebec government.

Our daughter goes to a private school since immigrants (and Canadians who either were educated in English outside of Canada or educated in French) are not allowed to send their kids to the English public schools. In that school, half of her time was in French from first grade to sixth and now it is dialed back to being just one of many classes that meets for one hour a day or so.

Should I have spent significant time and effort when I first got here to master French? Some of my colleagues have (although, notably, those living downtown and sans children at the time). I am not sure. As a new professor at McGill (a very time intensive teaching position, compared with TTU) with a long commute (also new to me), I felt that I didn't have the time or energy to dedicate to the task. Plus, as mentioned above, I know that I am lousy at learning languages. On the other hand, I might be lousy at languages as I have never excelled in topics that don't interest me, which in middle and high school were: French, music, and art. Indeed, one of the problems with my French experience in middle school was the combination of French and art--projects. Yuck!

Of course, the Quebec readers of my blog will say that I moved to Quebec, so I should learn the native language. And they have a point. However, I never conceived of the move to Montreal as a move to Quebec but a move to Canada (and a move away from Texas). Still, I often feel embarassed when I am in a crowd of folks when the conversation is in French. I can get some of the gist of the conversation, but I know I am missing out. And it is a bit rude to expect everyone to switch to English just because I am linguistically limited.

So, after seven years, will I re-dedicate myself to the task? Aside from consistently playing on a Francophone team on Thursdays each summer, no. I am lazy and I am lame. I don't have a good aptitude for languages, and my attitude is not so good either.

So, when I need some translation, I will have google do it for me, or ask my daughter, who is reluctantly good en Francais.

1 comment:

Jacob T. Levy said...

"I never conceived of the move to Montreal as a move to Quebec but a move to Canada"

Interesting. I strongly conceived of it as a move to *Montreal*, have come to understand it as also (but secondarily) a move to Quebec, and at a gut level still don't quite conceive of it as a move to Canada.