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A Language Epidemic

I watched French television and enjoyed it. There, I said it.

Now this may not seem like a surprising admission to most, but as someone who’s lived all my life in Montréal, it sometimes still shocks me how divided the anglophone (English-speaking) and francophone (French-speaking) worlds can be, especially when it comes to entertainment and pop culture. Someone will mention the name of a Québec celebrity, and my face will be completely blank. And I’ll have to admit that I’ve never heard of the super-famous “vedette” in question.

Some of my favourite online language tools: Linguee and Bon Patron

I went to French immersion schools in the English system, and came out of high school “sort of bilingual.” My friends are a mix of anglo and franco, but mostly anglophone. I watch English TV, go to English theatre and storytelling shows, and read English books, magazines, and websites.

My French is pretty good. Good enough to live in French in places like restaurants, stores, or services, but not good enough to express complex thoughts or emotions to a friend. Good enough to answer WordPress support questions in French, but not good enough to read a French novel comfortably.

Épidémie - photo of doctor wearing face mask

But when my friend Marie-Josée recently mentioned being hooked on a Québec-made TV show called Épidémie (Epidemic), I was suddenly intrigued. For some reason, I’m drawn to shows about viruses and pandemics, and despite the eerie timing, I thought it could be fun way to improve my vocabulary. I started watching it with the closed captions on and inhaled the first four episodes, looking up terms I didn’t recognize. I can now say stretcher, ferret, ignore, trigger, and sneezing in French. And I’ve been introduced to fabulous expressions like: “passer dans le beurre” (to go unnoticed) and “te traiter aux petits oignons” (to take good care of you). I can’t wait for new episodes – dang network TV with its weekly releases!

Speaking of languages, last week I was lucky to be in Panama City with my team from Automattic. It was my first time in Latin America, and I was surprised at how much Spanish I could understand, considering I last studied it 30 years ago, and never put it into use after that. While I was thrilled to be able to make myself understood in a few casual situations like restaurants, I was also very grateful to have three Spanish speakers on my team, who kindly did a lot of translating for us.

The trip did make me want to travel to more Spanish-speaking countries. When I took two years of Spanish at university, my thought at the time was that with English, French, and Spanish language skills, I could get by comfortably in many countries. While that level of travel never panned out, what I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that it’s never too late for almost anything, so we shall see what the future holds.

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