What is it like emigrating to a new place with a new culture and a new language? It’s difficult. I have experienced this a couple of times.
- My family is from the south of France, but I grew up in the Flemish school system and culture of Belgium. I spoke Flemish, a variant of Dutch.
- When I moved back to France at 8 years old, the culture was familiar but I had to learn to write in French. I was also the odd semi-Flemish Belgian kid, but at this age, kids don’t care.
- When I moved, at 14, to Vancouver, Canada, the experience was drastically different. I was midway through learning how to socialize, a skill I had not mastered, and was dropped into a completely different culture with a new language.
I had somewhat studied English in the French school system. As a recurrent class daydreamer, my level was low and I did not absorb much. It was not until 6 months after learning we were moving to Anglophone Canada that I applied myself and got near-perfect grades. I suppose I arrived in Canada with somewhat of a basis of English. At least, I knew a bunch of irregular verbs we had to memorize back home. But learning a language formally and conversing in it are two drastically different enterprises. Education expects correct and idiomatic English while conversations are based on understandability and colloquialisms.
Learning academic English to not drown within the Anglophone educational system is not complicated, especially when you have no choice. It only requires passive exposure. Except for English classes, I was dropped in regular classes from the start. I did not understand much these first few months and the local's customs and social exchanges felt uncanny. I remember hearing early on a teacher jokingly telling a student that "he sucked". In retrospect, this doesn't seem very appropriate but translate that to French and it sounds downright inappropriate. Hopefully, I don't have to fill in the gaps for you, but I was shocked to hear that. Where the hell had I landed?
In English Second Language (ESL) classes, I applied myself and got the best marks. After 4 months, I was placed in the regular curriculum. Frankly, I still understood little of what was happening, especially when reading A Midsummer Night's Dream in grade 9. But when you're in a strange environment with a language you don't speak nor understand that well, you smile, nod, and pretend like everything is ok, because there is nothing you can do about it. It’s not like you’re going to go complain to your schoolmates or teacher when you can’t articulate what difficulties you are experiencing. By grade 10, I was getting higher grades than most first-language English speakers. It’s not that I am smart. I noticed a similar pattern in a number of immigrants who went through the same process. When you have no linguistic or cultural community of your own (my brother and I seemed to be the only Francophones in a school of 1200), your brain learns as fast as possible to blend in. My goal at the time was to be so good that people would not be able to guess I wasn't a local. This goal hopelessly failed as my French accent always gave me up. Interestingly, I was always irritated upon receiving compliments for my accent (which in Anglophone culture is generally experienced as nice sounding). I only wanted to belong, and to be reminded time and again that I would not succeed until I lost that damn accent that made the mustard rise to my nose (as we say in France). This was a goal eventually abandoned, years later, and I cannot care less about my accent anymore.
Mastering English for the educational setting does help you feel like you belong to the culture you are, as an immigrant, trying to blend in. However, what is truly required to master a foreign language at the conversational level (the most gruelling by far), are courage and humility. To learn to converse in a new language is to pass as a fool on a daily basis. You cannot learn it from a textbook. It must be practiced. My problem, at the time, is that I was neither courageous nor had humility. I was proud and timid. I shunned conversations always and everywhere. I started living life as a recluse. I had no friendships for years, no one to lean on. Looking back, it took me about 7 years to start caring less and talking more. This was the most difficult part of emigrating.
It is interesting because these days I have little patience for fellow immigrants who do not have a solid level of conversational English, especially if they immigrated years ago. In my head, I correct every grammatical mistake I hear or see. Studying linguistics did not help as it gave me more tools to dissect these errors. I am not saying I am right. In fact, I am definitely wrong, and I realize this perfectionistic habit is fairly unhealthy. But I cannot help it. I have done it for years, and it is what pushed me to attain an excellent level in the foreign language I use daily at work and at home – my wife doesn't speak French.
Moving to a new culture also entails losing access to your culture. Stinky French cheese, wine, pâtés, charcuterie and more, were gone. You could buy them, but the cost became exorbitant. I was lucky that my dad was a baker, as otherwise I would have had to give up quality French bread. After years, I ended up terribly missing the cultural aspects of France and Belgium: the history, the towns, the buildings, the holidays, the affordable musical education, the food, the people, the endless vines, and the humour. Over time, you develop an appreciation for the new local analogues, but your heart remains most strongly moved by what you knew as a child.
Immigrating as a teen also blesses you with a group of other young teens who, in my case, greeted me with a "f**ck you Frenchie" on a daily basis. I must give it to them, they were astoundingly consistent and unimaginative. I kid you not, I heard that for four years from the same kids all throughout high school, and they sneered at me every time. You would think, in four years, they would mature a bit. Not one iota. And they did not expand their repertoire either. I can only conclude that they were severely brain dead and ended up as useless and unproductive adults. Immigrating, if you have a history of being picked on, will place you as an easy target for bullies. They will love that you're different and that you have no social support. On the flip side, there were countless kids who were supportive and helpful, so the bullies were not the norm, but they sure made their presence known.
To conclude, as a recurrent immigrant, I have never quite felt like I really belonged. When I would have passed off as a Flemish kid in Belgium, my grandfather would forcefully remind me that I was French. When I lived in France, what should have been my home country felt kind of foreign. Today I have been in Canada for 13 years and I feel comfortable calling myself a Canadian. There are so many immigrants here! But I also feel French. And Belgian. So that's really all confusing. But I'm very happy to call Canada my home.