This is my contribution to the Language/Place Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Jean at tasting rhubarb.
I grew up in the homogeneous, English-speaking rural northeastern U.S., but where I live now, in Montreal, the languages of the world constantly swirl around me. In buses, on the streets, and in the metro I catch snatches of conversations; mainly in French but often not, and sometimes with the speakers switching easily back and forth between two or three languages.When I first moved here, with my thirty-years-rusty schoolgirl French, I found this fluency amazing and completely intimidating, especially among young people who seemed not only to be comfortable in many languages but to have traveled to all parts of the globe. It also made me a bit pissed off: how could they be so good at this and so young? "If I had grown up here..." I'd find myself saying in my head.
But once in a while, the tables are turned, and I overhear a conversation that shows some unexpected naivete (not often among the French or global immigrants, I must add.)
So: it's late one night on a crowded Green Line metro car running between McGill and Berri/UQAM. The first speaker is a tall Quebecer, anglophone, pale reddish complexion, sandy hair and beard, 20-ish; looks rather straight. His friend: same age, also Caucasian and anglophone but with dreadlocks and loose clothes, affecting a worldly hippie look.
Sandy hair -- So I'm going to meet her in Ottawa this weekend. She's Asian.
Dreads -- Really? From where?
--No kidding! Did you know I'm studying Chinese?
--No...what's that like? (nervous laughter) Maybe you can teach me something to say to her.
--Right...well, it's interesting. Very complex. Umm, you could say "Ni hao!" to her. That means "hello."
--(more nervous laughter. He clears his throat and tries:) "Knee How."
--(laughs) A little more like this: "Ni-HOW." See, in Chinese you have all these inflections. That's where the voice has to go up, or down, or stay flat. (He demonstrates and explains that the word he's saying has four different meaning depending on the inflection.
--Wow, I never knew that about Chinese!
--Yeah. And then you have the characters to learn.
--What do you mean, 'characters'?
--(surprised pause, then stares at his feet before answering) Well, Chinese isn't written in letters like English or French. It has symbols that are made up of strokes, and they form, well, sort of pictures that represent words or things or ideas. It's hard to explain.
--Oh, kinda like the Inuit!
--The Inn-you -- Who are they?
--(astonished look, quickly wiped off the face so as to appear polite - these are Canadians, after all) They're our native northern people here in Quebec.
--(looks confused) Oh...