The Language Connection

Poutine Sauce, Ottawa, May 2015

Poutine Sauce, Ottawa, May 2015

Before I started freelancing, I had two office jobs that came with a nice employee benefits package. My favourite perk? The insurance provider covered a portion of the cost of a massage therapist, no referral needed.

I took full advantage of it. There is nothing that can’t be fixed with a one-hour massage session. If you ever want to corrupt me or make me talk, don’t bother getting me drunk—just promise a massage.

When I noticed a new registered massage therapist had arrived in our neighbourhood, I made an appointment.

The massage was good. Yet, I never came back and this decision was a real dilemma for me.

Did I lose the job and the benefits? No, I broke free from the golden handcuffs months later. The problem was the massage therapist: he barely spoke English and yes, it was an issue.

I think he was from the Balkans, so no lingua franca. I couldn’t understand what he was saying and he didn’t seem to understand me either. It was a real “dialogue de sourds” as French say, a dialogue of the deaf, a modern farce. We couldn’t communicate.

I felt awful about not coming back because of a language issue. I think he was a refugee and as an immigrant, I sympathize with someone trying to rebuild his life in a new country.

However, as a client, I want to be able to communicate with the service provider.

Canada is a very multicultural country and more than 200 mother tongues or languages are spoken at home. The 2011 Census of Population specifies that “immigrant languages originate from all continents and belong to a variety of language families. In 2011, they constituted the mother tongue of more than 6.8 million people, or 20.6% of the Canadian population.”

Impressive, isn’t it? And what’s even more impressive is that most immigrants master at least one of the two official languages of Canada. Sure, we all have various levels of proficiency but I rarely meet people who can’t speak or understand English, especially in a business context. Language matters. Canadians generally don’t mind accents and grammatical errors (they won’t dissect your sentences like French do) but they expect those in customer-facing positions to have basic language skills.

That someone doesn’t speak either of our two official languages doesn’t offend me as a Canadian. Shouting “speak our language or get out!” is simplistic and racist.

However, a lack of language proficiency is certainly a tragedy on a personal level.

I only spoke very basic English when I first came to Canada—this is what happens when you roots for Marxist ideas and study Mandarin at school. I clearly remember how frustrating it was not to understand what was going on around me. The news on the radio in the car sounded like “accident… bad…. thank you and goodnight”. Movies? Well, for once I was glad most Hollywood blockbusters could give glass lessons in transparency. Even trips to the supermarkets were a challenge—I once bought bleach instead of detergent (I knew it had something to do with cleaning, I remembered the word from one of Nirvana’s album!)

I spent my first year and a half in Canada trying to survive in this environment I couldn’t quite decipher. And as a French, I was lucky: there were French-language books at the library and government services were offered in French as well. Once in a while, I crossed the bridge to Quebec and read all the signs in French just because I could.

I felt completely isolated from Canadians. I couldn’t do small talk, couldn’t relate to the culture, didn’t understand jokes and when arguing with Feng, I always ended up in tears because crying was easier than expressing myself in English.

Long story short, I picked up English and voilà.

Federal skilled workers have to demonstrate language skills as part of the permanent residency application, so even if they aren’t fluent in English or French, they will be fine. This linguistic challenge is often faced by other family members, spouses or parents.

For instance, I have a hard time connecting with other parents at the playground because many mothers or grand-mothers don’t speak a word of English. They didn’t get a chance to learn or pick up the language because presumably, they take care of the kid(s) all day long. Sometime, there are lucky to belong to a community where other immigrants speak their language. Sometime, they are just isolated. I feel terrible for them because they are missing on the best Canada has to offer—a sense of community.

A lack of language proficiency can taint your entire immigration experience. How can you feel at home if you don’t understand the language most spoken around you?

Presumably, if you are reading this article, your English is just fine and I’m preaching to the choir. But if you immigrate with other family member or if you are considering sponsoring relatives, make sure they are up to the linguistic challenge.

It’s not easy to go back to school but there are government-funded classes offered by the federal, provincial and territorial governments across Canada to newcomers. I’m not going to lie: despite widespread beliefs, even immersed in the language, it will take longer than a fortnight to master the language. You will need patience, practice and determination.

But it is worth it.

The language connection is everything.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. You’re not preaching to the choir. This is exactly my experience here in Germany. German is my fourth language, and my least proficient (I don’t consider Spanish, as I can simply fake it without actually being able to speak it). While I know enough German to pass B2 level, it definitely is not enough to feel comfortable using it.

    See, for me, every German language usage situation is pretty much an exercise. I still find myself rehearsing what I should say, though it’s becoming less nowadays. But still, I tend to avoid hanging out with my partner’s German friends, because I know the event would be in German, and I still don’t have the skills to do chit-chat and small talk. I can convey information, but I find it harder to convey emotion. Hence, my personality in English is definitely different to my personality in German.

    Needless to say, I see this as a challenge I have to face, and not something I need to be scared away from. Little by little, we’ll get there.

    • Yes to the personality thing! I remember thinking the same with my limited English skills. I was a different person… it just wasn’t me.

      German is tough and you haven’t been there for that long. No doubt your language skills will improve over time. It’s also impressive that you completed a PhD in a language which, after all, is not your mother tongue.

  2. Hi Zhu

    I can understand what you had gone through because that’s what I experienced when I first arrived in France. No small talks, I couldn’t relate to the French’s thinking. I couldn’t understand the street conversation because they speak in l’argot. Luckily, my French husband speaks very good English, so we can still argue in English. It’s really tough when you don’t speak the language. Now, I’m getting corrected by my daughters and her friend when I speak to them. Damn, I can’t wait for the day when they start their English class…. I’ll take my revenge 🙂

    • And French are picky about their language too. Grammar, regional slang, structures… if you don’t speak like them, well, you don’t speak French. That’s what they seem to think anyway. How long did it take you to be comfortable in French?

      • I’m still not comfortable with the language even after 10 years. Everybody says that I speak well but I know that I still have problem with the grammar. It’s just too complicated. I actually completed a master degree in French so that I can improve on my writing and presentation skill. It did help me and It’s better than going to French classes. Everyday, I have to juggle with 3 languages (French with my friends, English with my husband and Mandarin with my girls) and it’s very tiring for the brain.

        • Oh yes! I find that three languages is the max. I can deal with at any given time. For instance, in Latin America, if I speak Spanish, English and French, I can’t add Mandarin. My brain just doesn’t compute.

          Did you enjoy the master experience in France?

          • Yes, i did enjoy going back to school. It was a “formation continue”. Basically, all of us have working experience and we decided to do a little bit of upgrade. The school atmosphere is very different from what I have in Singapore. It was very fun and the students were nice to share notes with me.

          • I was asking because French usually value education and take courses or training seriously. I find this is a common point we have with many Asian countries–formal education is respected. It’s a bit different in North America…

  3. True.

    I’m not even there yet and I believe that in an immigrants journey language is probably the most important aspect, that is me, I would also insist that the accent plays an important role as well. I worked for customer service for customers in Glasgow and Belfast, and I realized the importance of accent; you too had shared your experience about French and Quebec accents in one of your articles.

    I love English language, it is not my mother tongue but when I am alone and I talk to myself, it is always English. I love trying accents as well. Mais francais, ce n’est pas facile pour moi, vraiment! J’espere que Je saisun peu plus francais avant nous pouvons arriver a l’Ottawa. Je pense que l’Ottawa est le choix correct pour les bilinguals, est-ce que j’ai raison? (I didn’t refer to any dictionary this time, please excuse me pour les fautes)

    And on a completely different topic; since you have referred to Canada as the fridge many a times; I would like to point out that our oven has been turned on 🙂 Indian summers have begun.

    Thanks again for the lovely photos from the supermarket 🙂

    • Oui, je pense qu’Ottawa (ou même Gatineau, on se réfère à la Région de la capitale nationale) est un bon choix pour les gens qui veulent parler anglais et français.

      I agree, accents matter too… but this is not something I’m picky about because I’m used to hear many accents, like most Canadians.

  4. Ten years in France and I’m still not good at the language. I can speak, but with grammatical errors, and I do not write well. French people around me have been very nice, they seldom correct me, they just accept that I’m a foreigner and I make mistake. My bosses will patiently wait for me to finish my sentences. I’m happy now that I could participate in more and more discussions, giving my opinions instead of just listening. But sometimes what I interpreted was still wrong, because I feel that French use a different level of language in work vs informal discussions. For example in school I learnt “voiture”, at work with female coworkes they would use “voiture” as well, but male coworkers use “bagnole”, and my French friends would use “caisse”. I still discover a lot of words that would be used by different people but have the same meaning. And, a lot of profanity in French, that are acceptable when used by a man, but less acceptable when used by a female. Still long way to go…

    Anyway, I’m very impressed by your written English (I presume you are good at oral too), could you share your secret? Do you read principally in English? I found that I have very limited vocabularies and I couldn’t express exactely what I want to say (as compared to Chinese).

    • I haven’t heard you speaking French but I think you may be a bit too hard on yourself because French are so picky with their language. Believe it or not, they correct me too when I go to France because if I haven’t interacted with French from France in a while, I tend to use neutral vocabulary (i.e. I would never say “bagnole” in Canada, no one would understand) and I sometime think in English and it shows (i.e. I would say “j’ai fait un rendez-vous”). And don’t forget that French is very regional too… I always have a hard time understand people with a Southern accent, some say pain au chocolat and other chocolatine, etc.

      Anyway, I think reading books in English really helped me mastering structures and vocabulary. It took me ages to finish a book at first, but little by little I started to understand instinctively what X and Y meant. Speaking… well, I guess the environment helped. No one ever picked on my English here, which was actually annoying at first because I wanted people to correct me! But I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. I never took classes here, and in a way I think it helped as well because I picked up English from Canadians and Americans, bypassing the “but why is this this and that is that”.

      Yes, I mostly read in English, I’d say 90% of the time. And I’ve been there for a while too now!

  5. I forgot to say, I don’t really speak to my massage therapist, so for me language is not an issue. When I was in Thailand, I just pointed to the body parts I wanted extra forces, and the person would try several level of forces to see what level I would be comfortable with. We just say ok or not ok. So I didn’t quite understand how you would “fire” your massage therapist due to the language issue. lol

  6. I have to agree with you – I think it can come across as being ignorant when you are in a country to settle down and live and you haven’t got at least basic language levels or aren’t making every effort to improve them. It just makes life a lot harder for everyone. That said though, I also 100% agree with immersion into a different language for people without that language to help them to learn it too – especially for younger people.

    • Immersion is everything, but I also think people have unrealistic expectations. You can have people speaking English or French or whatever around you all day long and never understand a word if you don’t try to learn, i.e. use a dictionary, figure out grammar rules, etc.

  7. I agree. I am a physiotherapist and I work in a clinic in Milan, so there are many patients whose mother tongue is not italian. Luckily I speak English so if their italian is not great but they speak some English, it’s not a problem to explain them the therapies or treat them. But I remember once a Chinese patient who didn’t speak one word of italian or English…He had to call his doctor (who spoke Chinese) to be explained the therapies!
    I feel sorry for the patients that don’t understand fully the language of the country they live in because it must be frustrating to be sick and not be able to fully express your problems 🙁

    • This must be incredibly frustrating in a context as important as healthcare. I’m curious… how does physiotherapy works in Italy? Is it part of the healthcare system, popular… etc.?

      • It is popular but it’s not a registered profession like in Canada, unfortunately. I work in a medical centre which is private but also offers a certain amount of appointments paid by the healthcare sector. other centers may be fully private. Hospitals are usually entirely public or private with the health care option as well.
        i did a one month internship in Canada (Toronto) before graduating. I was at the Toronto Rehab Institute and there was a translator available for communicating with patients and /or relatives. We are not that organised in Italy so I am the one translating, whenever I can 🙂 I think Italians have just started to get used to the fact that many people want to come here to live, instead of many italians wanting to go away like it used to be until a few decades ago, so many people just need to get into the mentality of offering multi language informations to patients.

        • Very interesting! I was asking because physiotherapy is super popular here, especially in Ottawa where most people work for the federal government and enjoy benefits, so the treatment or part of it is often covered by the provincial insurance.

          France is the same as Italy I think, information is offered in French only. If you don’t understand, well, too bad–that seems to be the message.

  8. Preach woman !! i completely understand what you mean. I am lucky i speak fluently French and English but i first moved to the States, my British english was different to what they spoke so sometimes i did not understand school lessons or the news. I was lucky to have my sister to help me. My mom has a hard time because she speaks little English. I had to make sure she could get French tv to make her more comfortable when i was living in the States (it costed me an arm!) . Here, she loves it because French and English translations everywhere. No extra charge for french channels!

  9. I am a failure at languages… and I think it is simply because I am lazy! An excuse I use is that to learn a language was not compulsory when I was at school, so I never learnt how to learn a language.

    I lived in France for 4 years and my spoken was basic, enough to get by day-to-day but not to enjoy conversations with friends. Working/studying in a Science Lab that was very international didn’t help with learning French either. However, I could understand the majority of conversations and also read. It got to the stage where my friends spoke to me in French and I replied in English! I actually found it frustrating to understand everything but I could not reply in French.

    After living in Turkey for 2.5 years my Turkish comprehension is getting pretty good. I know a lot of words but I cannot make sentences or remember any verbs!! There are no Turkish language courses in my city and my Turkish husband speaks English fluently so we speak in English, it is easier for him to communicate with me in English because our levels are so different.

    But, I know that I am simply lazy and take advantage of those around me knowing English. However, I am findings things frustrating at the moment now that I am understanding Turkish better. I always want to reply and French comes out first! I seem to know the perfect reply in French but not Turkish (wish it was like this when I lived in France). One advantage of Turkish is that there are many words that are the same as in French.

    • Really, Turkish and French have words in common? Wow, I would have never guessed!

      I don’t think you’re lazy. Some people are better at picking languages than other… and I hope I don’t sound patronizing saying this! I’m really a word nerd, I pick up languages easily. However, I don’t get science. I really don’t. When it takes me 15 minutes to calculate something, it takes Feng five seconds. So I can imagine that’s how some people feel about foreign languages!

      • Yeah, it was really surprising. And actually quite helpful. If I don’t know the Turkish word, I try the French word and sometimes I get lucky. Some words I can think of are pantalon/pantolon, camion/kamyon, beton/beton, douche/duş, tournevis/tornavida, coiffeur/kuaför, mobilier/mobilya, plage/plaj, trottoir/tretuvar.

        Good old wikipedia says: “The French words started to infiltrate the Turkish language in the 1800s, when the administrative reforms started taking place in the Ottoman Empire. The extent of French influence was so much that the number of French loanwords was close to 5,000.”

        • This is fascinating, I had no idea. I used to know a few words in Turkish because I love the food and there are many second-generation Turks in Nantes, where I grew up. But I don’t think I saw anything close to French, or at least it didn’t register at the time.

  10. P.S – After living in non-English speaking countries for the last 7 years my English (mother tongue) has become terrible!

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