Monolingualism, as a bumper sticker recently assured me, can be cured. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’ve been neglecting my linguistic health for so long, I’m afraid the prognosis for a complete recovery is hopeless.
As expats, we have a built-in push to learn the lingua franca of our host country. It makes our lives so much easier, on both a practical level and an emotional one. It invests us in our new life abroad, helps our cultural adjustment, and perhaps most importantly for our mental health, it guides us in our interactions with local people. This last point is crucial for living expat life to the fullest — few things are more isolating than not being able to engage with your community because of a language barrier.
I’m sure most expats would agree that acquiring a language organically, through total immersion, is a painful but effective approach. I certainly found learning French much easier than learning Mandarin, because in Bordeaux I was enveloped en français. I couldn’t escape it if I tried (and believe me, there were days when I tried. Hard.) It’s not completely effortless — I’d be telling a big fat lie if I told you I absorbed French through osmosis — but it’s amazing what being forced to function in a language all day long does for fluency.
In Singapore, learning Mandarin was a side project. I can only remember needing it once, when I had a cab driver who spoke nothing else. Otherwise, it was all English, all the time. (With a little Singlish thrown in to keep me on my toes.)
I was determined to keep up both languages when I moved back to Canada. I figured it would be easy: French is an official language of my homeland, after all. And the Chinese population in Mississauga, where I live, is about 45,000. There are so many Chinese clubs and associations (not to mention churches, restaurants, and supermarkets), that I expected maintaining my rudimentary Mandarin would be a cinch.
You’d think I would know by now that the biggest obstacle to grandiose plans like that is me.
Freshly repatriated, I registered for a conversation class at my local Alliance Française. A few months later I discovered the Ministry of Education’s International Languages programme and started attending free Saturday morning Mandarin lessons. (The classes are for high school credit, so I outrank most of my classmates by a good 30 years. But at that price, I’m not complaining.)
And then, my gung-ho language mission sort of went pffffft. The Alliance class finished, and life got a little busy, so I didn’t re-register. I dropped out of Mandarin class last December because of a long illness, and never went back when things improved. Inertia wins again!
Something happened this past week that made it perfectly clear just how far I’ve let things slide: I attended the Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The warriors were impressive, and the ROM does a great job of contextualizing its exhibits, so there was a ton of information on display in English, French, and Chinese.
It was a sad moment when I realized I could no longer read any of the Chinese, aside from the really easy characters like 人 (person, people), 大 (big), and 我 (I, me). While I was still processing that disappointment, I remembered a phone call I had with my French friend Bérengère several months ago, in which I stumbled, stuttered, and generally embarrassed both of us. Linguistically, it’s clear that I’ve Let Myself Go.
But all is not lost: I know that the Mandarin and French I so painstakingly learned are tucked away somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind. Although I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, maybe now is the perfect time to ditch the bad habits that got me into this mess and focus instead on restoring my foreign language health. No intervention required.