The other night, I had the pleasure of attending the Governor General’s Awards in visual and Media Arts at the National Gallery on behalf of the U.S. Embassy. The prizes were essentially lifetime achievement awards for a diverse group of Canadian visual artists. The National Gallery’s great hall on a beautiful early evening was the perfect spot for the cocktail party and presentation.
The crowd included members of the younger art scene, local luminaries, as well as the friends and families of the honorees. I did the rounds, having previously mastered the art of holding a glass of wine with a napkin of cheese and crackers in one hand, so as to leave the other free for spontaneous new acquaintance hand-shaking. As I made the rounds around the circular hall, I met several artists and one woman who works for the Canadian government funding international development programs.
We all took our seats for the award presentation and short speeches by the recipients. The first speaker described the history of the awards and process by which the Canada Council for the Arts received nominations and selected the ultimate winners. I have become used to a certain level of Canadian bilingualism, just in my interactions on the street, in shops, and in restaurants. I was at first surprised to hear so much French in what I expected to be an English-dominated province. What really struck me during the hour-long presentation, however, was how every speaker incorporated both French and English.
I’ve been to many presentations that included two or more languages. Typically, these become very tedious in that the speaker repeats the same paragraph verbatim in each language. Every flight from the U.S. to Europe, for example, will have the most language-gifted flight attendant demonstrate his or her proficiency by repeating the standard buckle-your-seatbelt-don’t-smoke-save-the-kids-first diatribe in multiple tongues. Similarly, the law here requires all public signage to reflect both languages, repeating the warning or instruction in both languages.
This was different. Each speaker at the event, presenters and recipients alike, switched mid-speech between French and English. Instead of repeating the prior part of the speech, however, each simply continued in the alternate language. It was pretty clear for each speaker which language was most comfortable. The part of the speech, whether at the beginning or the end, that had the most jokes reflected the individual’s dominant language.
Although my three years of high school French failed me years ago, I’m slowly improving. My French language comprehension has improved in the last month from panic-inducing non-existence to simple incompetence. Thankfully, my seat-mate was kind enough to translate the jokes for me every time I frowned in concentration (“OK, I know that one was about a talking fish, right?”).
On the street, just about every shop, cart, and restaurant staffer will make an instantaneous guess as to whether you speak English or French and address you in that language. For whatever reason, I have a Gallic look as more often than not the greeting comes in rapid-fire French. My tortured accent, however, always undermines my attempt to blend and the conversation typically reverts quickly to English. I’m working on it.
For most foreign service posts, I will have to pass a certain level of fluency in the local language. In Ottawa, one of our consular officers is fluent in French while another is fluent in Spanish. Me, I guess I’m fluent in sarcasm (which doesn’t always translate here in Canada). For those with an interest, even if the current job is not language-designated, the Foreign Service provides access to an online version of Rosetta Stone.
I was skeptical. How can anything sold primarily through infomercials and mall carts actually be worthwhile? It turns out to be pretty good. I’m working at glacial speed, mostly because I’m lazy, but I do find it useful. My goals are modest, but still well beyond my current grasp. To be seated in a restaurant and receive the French language menu from the hostess. And, of course, to understand the jokes without translation.