I have been learning English for years. I recall thinking that English is easier that French. I consider French as my first language, an imposed one but the only I dream in. Still I agree it is difficult. French is difficult, positively difficult. Beautiful but complicated to master and to use. Let’s say it differently: French grammar is difficult and mastering English pronunciation is a labor worthy of Hercules.
English grammar is easier, far easier. You only have to get acquainted with a few difficulties and that’s it. On the other hand, English pronunciation is hell on earth: five vowels and infinite ways of pronouncing them. I didn’t count. Then, you need to learn to pronounce the consonants, the single ones and the double one. You need to know how to say “r”, “sw”, “th”, “wr”, “gh” and so on, without forgetting there is a great chance that their pronunciation is different for each word you encounter. Then you have to add to them the vowels which have always unexpected sounds. And I am expected to speak English!
How to tell my friends that I have swum or that I swam when by an unwritten rule swum is almost pronounced like swam and swam almost like swum. Almost! That “almost” makes all the difference. I decided to show the white flag, to look for a way to have conversations without using confusing vowels and words with an “r”. Try if you can. Impossible! I couldn’t give up the struggle if I wanted to have a chance to discuss, talk and bond with human beings.
If it was only the “r”…
It is not the end of the world if people believe that my favorite distraction is working instead of walking, isn’t it? But there are also “ble” or “ple”at the end of words and all the rest. Moreover I need to find the good pronunciation while using the right rhythm, the right word, the right intonation and the right grammar. Even for a woman, it is a little too much.
And every time I think I have improved my pronunciation, I discover that people keep not understanding me, sometimes for my benefit, sometimes for my shame. After many mistakes, I can now correctly say the name of the street where I live and most of the times people don’t understand any longer than I am angry when I am only hungry. At least I hope: because besides swimming, I really enjoy eating.
Life is sometimes, most of the time, unpredictable, especially for immigrants. They think they have figured it all out. They have plans. Then someone or something steps in and alters all their dreams. As a result, they try to find solutions. They elaborate other plans that seem unfailing, just as the seemingly unfailing plans of opossums.
Who really knows what an opossum is? Who can say “I saw an opossum yesterday near the window of my bedroom”? Who has a story, a real one, involving an opossum?
Could you imagine your friend Jack telling you: “Sunday, an opossum stole my food!” Or “You won’t believe it! An opossum just attacked me.”? Would you believe him? Would you not tell him that it was probably a wild cat or a squirrel that need to go on a diet?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, an opossum (or possum) is a “small American or Australian animal that lives in trees and carries its young in a pouch.” Opossums do exist. No one would dare contradict the Oxford Dictionary. For those who are not accustomed to opossums, let us try to put forward a definition. Despite of what the pouch may suggest, an opossum is not a dwarf-kangaroo. It is a small and “adorable” animal that probably possesses a lost kangaroo gene. It seems to look like a wild cat, an impressive wild cat with an imposing tail. If you desire to know more about opossums, try Google. It is sometimes the ideal tool to learn, even what cannot be learned.
However, we do not need more details. All we need to know is that they have plans and projects as the following story proves.
A sunny Sunday, Two friends, Abby and Chris, were on the highway 401, heading towards the east of Toronto. It was a special Sunday. Someone, somewhere, had decided long ago that all Canadians should celebrate something on that date. In an idealistic world, it would have been a day of rejoicing; a day to stay at home and enjoy good food and French wine with one’s family. However, as we live in an imperfect world, most of the people living in Toronto seemed to be out on that day and the traffic was worse than usual.
Abby and Chris were listening to old songs on the radio while wondering where all those rebellious people were going. By chance, Chris saw a dead animal in the middle of the highway. It was too big to be a squirrel and had the same color as a cat she once saw on a street or in Alice in Wonderland. She was therefore persuaded that she had seen a dead cat. That was without allowing for Abby. Abby knew it was a possum though there are none in the country she comes from. She had no doubt. She had probably googled it at some point in the past. Chris was at the same time skeptical and excited. She was excited to know what an opossum looks like: it looks like the Cheshire cat.
Then, she wondered what that opossum was doing in the middle of a highway. After a while, she understood. As you can imagine, this opossum was travelling. It was quite obviously on his way to visit its relatives. It thought it would be able to make it to the other side of the highway. It was a loving, caring and naïve opossum.
Decades ago, its family lived in what is now highway 401. When some desperately intelligent and cunning men decided that Ontario needed a new east-west highway, its family found refuge in the trees bordering the highway. Unfortunately, a part of the family found refuge on the north side and the other on the south side. From generations to generations mothers told the children the story of their family. Generations after generations, young adventurous opossums seize the opportunity to become acquainted with its nearly close family. Generations after generations, they die.
That last one did not listen to its mother. It thought it was clever. It had weighed every risk. It knew when there was nearly no traffic and somehow it knew that this Sunday, humans would celebrate something with their families. It thought they would stay home. After explaining to its mother that its plan was perfect, it decided to cross the highway. What it did not know was that Canadians always go their own way. They do not celebrate and stay at home when they should. It did not know that highway 401 is the North America’s busiest highway. Poor opossum: it had no access to Wikipedia. That’s how dreams die under the sad or indifferent gazes of car occupants.
The dreams of millions of immigrants who crossed one or two oceans to become acquainted with success, were persuaded that they had weighed all the risks. They had wiped away their mothers’ tears and, with a smile, had promised to come back with impressive news, colossal wealth and profound happiness. Then a truck named System hits them and destroys their dreams. They attend the funerals of their dreams and of their personality. They lay out, almost dead, under the sad or indifferent gaze of the passersby, long-time immigrants or born and bred Canadians, just like adventurous and audacious opossums.
By the way, according to Google opossums do not look like cats, even Cheshire cats. Maybe, Abby was finally wrong.
This is my entire fault. Someone challenged me to read the Lord of the Rings so I bought it or better, them. All three books! As I had nothing to lose, except for my time of daydreaming in buses and subways, I decided to read them all. So, I began the first one, The Fellowship of the Rings.
I thought it wouldn’t be easy to read. Tolkien seeming to be the English equivalent of Proust, in a more fantastic way. However as I enjoyed reading In Search of Lost Time / Remembrance of Things Past and I enjoyed watching The Lord of the Rings and keep enjoying it, I started enjoying the longest fairy tale I have ever read.
Nonetheless, I have a rule: I don’t watch a movie if it is made from a book I have already read. Every time I broke my golden rule, I ended disappointed and disillusioned. So maybe it wasn’t a great idea to read a book after watching the movie. Unfortunately or fortunately, I had no rule for this last situation. I should maybe invent one, but the world would be more annoying, wouldn’t it?
So The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring: I love this book. What I lost because I didn’t understand all the words and because I didn’t have time to open my dictionary every time Tolkien has used a strange or/and complicated word, I earned it by living in another world, a world of mystery and poetry; especially as an English-speaker friend of mine assured me she didn’t understand all the words when she read it. Tolkien’s use of language is magic, enthralling even if he tended to use punctuation parsimoniously. He is definitely a good writer and a great storyteller.
Thus, I didn’t understand why Peter Jackson hasn’t made a movie that sticks to the book. Why did he need to change fascinating parts of the story, the most moving and beautiful ones? Why is it Arwen who saved Frodo from the hands of the black riders and not Glorfindel? Not glamorous enough? Maybe. However who watched The Lord of the Rings for its romantic aspects? No one! Or every one. Who knows?
Why make the Hobbits more stupid than they really are? Pippin and Merry are less foolish in the book, more intelligent, braver and more amicable. They are just normal, stupid in a normal way. And what about Tom Bombadil? He deserved to be in the movie or did I miss him?
Nevertheless, after having read the book, I still love the movie, even if it had a little less magic. It has more action, fewer songs and no description at all. The riders are more frightening, the landscape is amazing and you only have to spare three hours to watch it. I love it even if I would have preferred to watch a movie that is an accurate illustration of the book. Maybe there will be fewer differences between the second parts. I will see. I promised myself to be strong and to only to read The Two Towers in one month, even if my heart aches to forget anything else and only read the Lord of the Rings. It is no longer enough to watch the movies again and again. Now I am also addicted to the books. The first one really consumed me. Is it precious?
I have a dream
Being different is exotic, in a good way. It can be very attractive. However, most of the time differences lead to difficulties, conflicts and more. I am not talking about race differences, even if I could. Sometimes, language and cultural differences can be a source of troubles.
Have you ever heard of the Frazer report? If not don’t worry, neither had I, until January 2012. (If you knew about it before, just smile and shake your head but don’t say anything because I am sure you don’t know about On n’est pas couché). This year’s report was about The Cost of bilingualism. It explains how offering French services are costly. Maybe you agree with it. I do as well. Offering services in one language is less expensive. Of course, almost everyone, everywhere feels the same. It is normal, desperately normal.
Being special has a cost. And Canada is special. It is bilingual, in theory at least. As is Cameroon. Cameroon is supposed to be bilingual. However in practice, 80% of Cameroonians are Francophone and the other 20% needs to speak French to have a place in the society, to be considered as normal.
According to an article that I read almost by accident weeks ago, In Cameroon, English-speakers feel Francophone chill. Cameroonian Anglophones don’t feel like equal partners with the Francophone. They feel despised, ignored and excluded from governmental jobs. I feel compassion for them.
I am a French-speaker in Toronto and I don’t feel like an equal partner with all my Anglophone counterparts. Do not misunderstand me. People are great in Toronto, for the most part. They are friendly, nice and respectful. However when it comes to getting a job, a real one, I need perfect English: an English better than that of the most Toronto’s English-speakers. No recruiter cares for my perfect French or my possible extraordinary skills. No one. I am Francophone. I have a handicap. I need to prove that I am able.
Oh, I don’t complain. It could be worst. I could be living in a country where a ministry can declare that all civilizations are not equal, where the majority claims that the other are inferior to them; where being different is the worse you can be.
I used to live in that country. It is a great country. To it belongs the most beautiful city in the world. To it belong very humanist people. But being different there is not a good choice to make. Why choose to be Arabic, black or/and African? Who can be so stupid? But let’s come back to Toronto.
Everyone finds my accent cute. Everyone but those who count. I wish I were a chameleon or only a language chameleon. Being black in Africa ( even if it is not always the best choice to make ) and white elsewhere; speaking French in France (without an African accent), speaking French in Montreal (without a Parisian accent); speaking English in Toronto (without a French accent or even a British one) or Chinese in China (with a Chinese accent); being a man when I need to and a woman when I should. If only I were a chameleon.