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Can you repeat that?

I’m all in favour of bilingualism. But as I’m sure we’ve all experienced by speaking English and French in these parts, it can have its quirks.

I’m pure laine anglo, but because I like to talk to people, I’ve always been intrigued by other languages. I even took Latin in high school – who speaks Latin? I took an introductory German course in preparation for a cycling trip in the Alps, and I was glad I did. Ein Bier, bitte. And I’ve taken a couple of Spanish courses, although I haven’t yet had the chance to really hablar español.

Many of the students I taught in Montreal were multilingual. Speaking their family’s language at home – Italian, Portuguese, Greek — they learned French at school and English by osmosis. Wonderful. I taught in a journalism program, but I remember a recruitment call from CSIS one day; the spy agency was very interested in students who could report, write, and speak several languages. Sans doute.

I hope you don’t think I’m naïve. I know there are language tensions, I recognize the threatening hegemony of the English language, and I could make a reasonably sophisticated argument about language politics. For instance, in any group that comprises one anglo and several francophones, ask yourself what language they’re speaking? Mea culpa. But I’d prefer to look on the bright side for a bit.

I love those moments when people use both English and French in the same sentence. Or when a store clerk and I are speaking French to one another, and at some point realize we’re both anglos. Shrug. Or when you have to go the hardware store to buy un marteau, look up the proper word in the dictionary first, only to have the salesperson say: “Ah, t’as besoin d’un ’ammer!” I love it.

When I was studying French at university, the profs talked about niveaux de langue, or different ways of speaking a language: formally, informally, using slang or jargon, clipping words, using different words or technical language, etc. That turned out to be a great lesson. I understand much more listening to Radio-Canada than the folks at the curling club. Our Montreal rental backed onto a ruelle, where in summer evenings an older man would stop by to talk to me. To this day, I have no idea what he was saying. I just nodded and said oui a lot.

That’s one of the quirks — about communication in general, really. You often don’t need to speak the language, or understand it, to communicate. On a cycling trip through northern Belgium, I had a crash and bent the rear wheel entering a small village. There was a bike shop there where I hoped I could get it repaired or replaced. I don’t speak Flemish, but the look on the mechanic’s face and his shrug with upturned hands told me all I needed to know. I spent a whole evening with a German family at a campsite bar in the Bavarian Alps, and although my German was rudimentary – Noch ein Bier, bitte – and they didn’t speak English, we had a great time. Parting the next morning, they loaded my lightweight bike with a large sack of new potatoes from their garden. Danke shöne.

And then there was the time I crossed the border into northern Italy. It was at a time when each European country had its own currency, and credit cards were pretty much useless, especially at rural campgrounds. I had to exchange some money, and in the late afternoon all of the banks were closed. I knew the word for change in Italian was cambio, and as I cycled past a number of gas stations, I noticed signs for cambio.

I had travelled enough to know that different countries have different customs. I thought, maybe in Italy gas stations also serve as currency exchanges. After all, that would be handy for travelling motorists. So, I pulled into a station, walked into the kiosk, held out a bunch of Swiss francs, and asked the man behind the cash: cambio? , he said without hesitation, grabbed a newspaper, turned to the financial pages and looked up the exchange rate. He showed me his calculation, waited for my nodded agreement, and handed me my lira. Excellent.

Later, proudly relating this story to some fellow campers, they burst out laughing. It turns out the signs actually read, cambio olio: oil change.

I had the last laugh, though; it was the best exchange rate I had in my whole time in Italy.

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Mike Gasher

Mike Gasher is a former newspaper reporter and editor and taught for two decades as a journalism professor at Concordia University in Montreal. He has published several books and academic articles on journalism and the media, including the textbook Media and Communication in Canada. Now retired, he lives in L'Orignal.

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