"Taqueria Mexico dans la ville" a few blocks from our studio.
To live in Montreal is to swim in a sea of languages. I came here seven or eight years ago feeling my lack of French fluency very keenly. Gradually, it's improved -- through practice and immersion, helped by friendships and our deliberate choice to live in a French neighborhood -- to the point where I can read very well, manage to express myself in most situations, sustain fairly simple conversations, and converse with people who don't speak English. Best of all, I can finally follow the gist, at least, of most of what I hear. At first I thought being shy about speaking was the most isolating aspect, but I quickly realized, no, it was my failure to understand what was being said around me. In a way, it was like being deaf, and reminded me of my father-in-law's last years, when he so often simply tuned out of conversations he couldn't hear or understand, and as a result felt left out -- and he was, in fact, left out unless one of us acted as "translator" for him. I'm grateful to my bilingual friends here who've done that for me during meetings or other events when I was missing big chunks of important information.
But another aspect of Montreal reality is that many people are not merely bilingual, but trilingual, or even more. There are many immigrants and many blended families; people travel a lot too, and they're interested in other cultures, and want to be able to speak at least a little bit when they arrive; it seems like a cultural tendency, even a hobby, among many people in this city. I always laugh when I go to my dentist: in that office alone there are native speakers of French, Spanish, Romanian, and Farsi, which, when combined with my English, generally leads to a lively exchange rather than confusion, because they all find it fun to do that, and so do I.
Two of our best friends here are completely fluent in English, Spanish, and French, and I've been continually impressed and envious of the easy way they switch back and forth. They've been so generous in including us in family gatherings, sometimes with visitors from South America who speak no French or English. I've often wished I could converse a little in Spanish, a language I've never studied. Last year, when our bathroom was being re-done, the expert tile installer often brought his father, an entremely warm, nice man, to help -- but the older man spoke only Spanish. This sort of encounter happens all the time, and always feel like a missed opportunity when there's no language in common.
If I had been born here, I wonder if languages would have become more of a hobby for me, too. I studied French in school, then ancient Greek and German - but the later two were just for reading; speaking a language is different. I have some aptitude for hearing and repeating the nuances of sound -- maybe being musical helps. My problem, as an adult learner, has mainly been time. How I wish I knew the essential phrases and expressions and basic vocabulary in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, German, Farsi, Russian...not to mention Chinese and Japanese! Another potential avocation for a person with too many already!
However, with an upcoming trip to points south, I am finally tackling task #1, and learning some basic Spanish. It's been decades since I seriously studied a language besides French, and I'm finding it fascinating and fun. French turns out to be a help, as well as a confusion - my brain rebels at similarities like "elle" and "ella." (I do feel a little bit like I'm trying to cram new puchases into an already-full closet.) To study and practice, I've been using the online beginner's course offered by "Babbel;" the computer environment offers not only drills in reading and writing, but the benefits of an oral language lab with speech recognition. It keeps track of mistakes and presents an individualized review of my least-internalized material.
I just wish -- as always -- that there were more hours in the day!