In a cantina in Mexico city, I once received a note written to me in French. Mexicans are aware that Canada has two official languages. A Canadian who speaks only English is considered bewildering, if not wilfully stupid.
I don't know how to explain to them that years of mandatory French classes have little impact on the stubbornly unilingual. Canadians' traditional assertion that they are different from Americans might carry more weight if the whole country plunged into French immersion.
A major incentive for the learning of French can be found every Sunday night between 8 pm and midnight on CJBC, the only CBC station remaining on the AM band, at 860. I know of no English-speaking broadcaster who could come within a thousand kilometres of the awe-inspiring Jacques Languirand on his Par 4 Chemins.
In a deep, rich voice, M. Languirand delves into an endless stream of subjects such as the natural world, death, the death of the natural world, love, money, poverty, the oppression of women, religion, God and the nature of being. It is such a relief to be exposed to a real thinker that I don't care if my language limitations cause me to miss bits of his rapid-fire reports.
There exists a dictionary-type volume called Dictionnaire Des Idées Suggérées Par Les Mots (Ideas Suggested By Words, for the French-impaired). This book suggests that to learn French is to learn another way to think. Listening to Languirand is like learning to think, period. Unlike pompous radio hacks, Monsieur Jacques fearlessly sounds the alarm on global destruction and hammers home the culpability of man and his followers.
His joie de vivre often bubbles over in a hearty laugh. He'll repeat a line and exclaim, "C'est joli, a!" or "C'est extraordinaire!" How beautiful to become giddy with ideas! And he's been doing the show since 1971. About time he became famous outside Quebec.
Beginners might want to practise with a show on the same station where children call and give their opinions on the sujet du jour (weeknights at 7 pm). If you don't believe French Canada is another world, wait till you hear eight-year-olds expounding on the qualities of their favourite cheeses.
Saturday afternoons there's a uniquely bizarre show where the host plays a recorded version of a song and then sings or la-las the song himself while playing the piano.
English Canadians have been deprived of the chansons of the incomparable Félix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault. These, and obscure old songs from Paris and Quebec, are played along with stuff that comes directly from the new European chanson boom and African and Arab recording artists. This is all unmediated by that annoying and condescending "world beat" filter that blights such material when it's presented on English airwaves.
No matter what your level of French, their radio is worth listening to. All the on-air personalities (who actually have personalities) possess that quaint attribute that has been eschewed by English broadcasters voices that are very pleasant to the ear.
Hearing other languages is good for tolerance. I am always impressed by how quickly English speakers react against something they can't understand. Anglophones are racing around the world to teach English, with no reciprocal requirement to learn the language of the country to which they're going. There are no English teaching jobs in France, where everyone secretly speaks perfect English, but never aloud.
French could come in handy when attending a soirée to celebrate the launch of Les Beaujolais Nouveaux. You never know. You might win a ticket off the radio. That's how I got in. I called up around 1:30 on a Friday and gave the answer "Fleurie" (the "most feminine" of the Beaujolais), and the Wine Ladies went out of their way to ensure my entrance to the $60 all-you-can-taste event. Très enjoyable.
I happened to meet someone from "the GPA" (greater Paris area) whose job in Toronto is to assess the communication skills of those who claim to be fluently bilingual. He said, compared to those who really exaggerate on their resumés, my French is not so bad.
Buoyed by this near compliment, I struck up a conversation with a sommelier. I kept referring to the wine I was sipping as "Boo-yee," which is how "Bully" might be pronounced in French. Unfortunately, I'd picked the one wine with a name as English as Winston Churchill: "Bully for you," he kidded.
"Ah... oui," I recovered. "Et bully pour vous!"