Le ‘Instant French’

LE ‘INSTANT FRENCH’: OR HOW MY ‘JACKSTRAP’ TAUGHT ME THE INTRICACIES OF BILINGUALISM

I just love being bilingual. It is a much-maligned National policy which has both its champions and its detractors. I, for one am glad that I had the honour and privilege of learning Molière’s language. At least a very colourful regional dialect of it. If I force myself, I can pull off a half-decent Radio-Canada level of vocabulary, if not quite the same eloquent pronunciation. But I’ve always had a penchant for colloquial Québec French, or ‘Joual’ as it’s called. Being half of French-Canadian extraction myself, by virtue of both my parents being half each themselves, I quickly got used to hearing my father’s thick east-end Montréal working class French at home, and my mother’s seemingly never-ending well of ‘francisicisms’, or funny colloquial expressions which she picked up at boarding school at Bellevue, or in Beaupré, where she grew up.

For example, someone who was biting off more than they could chew, and putting on airs about it, would quickly be discounted by my mother as being someone who was trying to ‘Pèté plus haut que le trou’. I often tried to visualize somebody avidly trying to fart higher than some imaginary hole, and not usually having much luck at it, much less the poor soul who was attempting such a feat of daring do.

Then there was the famous codeword for the dishwasher, which was always simply referred to as the ‘Machin’: ‘Don’t forget to put on the Machin before coming up to bed’, my mother would say, before retiring for the evening.

Or her games cabinet down in the ante room in the basement, was simply referred to as ‘my meuble’, and pronounced with a distinctly Anglo-Québec accent. Another one of her favourites was her famous ‘semeunier’. I took the trouble to look this up in a French/English dictionary, as well as on the net, but to no avail. What it is though, was a vertical set of stand-up drawers, with seven openings, including two of which were false, and which opened downwards like an oven door, revealing my mother’s secret hiding place where she kept her check books, and bank books.

On the other side of the coin, when I first started to learn French, I simply listened for the Anglicisms which were liberally used in the average sentence by the average French-Canadian, and figured out the rest based on body language, or other things such as verbal cues, tone of voice, visual context, etc… It was pretty easy.

Especially fun was the camaraderie in the dressing room when I played minor hockey at the Sillery arena. Any differences between the boys based on language, or socio-economic status, was always quickly sublimated through the rough sort of familiarity of having a bunch of your male peers stripped down, in some cases, buck naked, cracking jokes, throwing the water bottle at each other, ripping the tape off their sticks after the game, crumpling it up into a ball, and doing your best to bean your buddy across the room as he tried in vain to take off his jock strap.
Minor cases of all out adolescent pubescent fratricidal warfare would quite often ensue, until such time as the coach came back into the dressing room and broke it up, often not before getting beaned upside the head with a tape ball.

The lingo was pretty easy to understand: Your jock strap in proper Québec French was a ‘jackstrap’. If your stick got cracked down the middle with a vertical hairline fracture, well, in proper Québec French you would just say: ‘Mon hockey est failé’. Pretty simple.

Line changes were a piece of cake. The assistant coach, who for some strange reason unbeknownst to me was nicknamed ‘zezette’, with his fiery red hair, indicative of Irish lineage somewhere in there dirtying up the ‘pure laine’, would bark out in a gruff, clipped, French-Canadian accent ‘Nexxx!!!’ This of course lacked a ‘T’ at the end, but we blokes on the team got the drift of it pretty easily.

All in all, the slow, but steady march towards official bilingualism was attained, and I can now shoot the breeze with the rough and readiest of truck drivers, or heavy equipment operators, while still holding my own in high-level intellectual discussions in mixed company.

And I’m proud to say that I can thank all of the people who ever tried to fart higher than the hole for it. Not to mention all of the other things my mother taught me. But especially, I can thank all of the ‘jackstraps’ of this province for giving me a suitably masculine environment within which I could master Molière’s language, and do something that everybody in this country can agree on.

Game on, la!!!!

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