A gift from the heart

By Estelle Bonetto, Regina, Saskatchewan

Drawing: Jérémy Beauchesne

Geneviève and Doug Clark are an exogamous couple—or a bilingual family, as Geneviève prefers to call it. Exogamy is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly prevalent in Saskatchewan, and many studies are drawing attention to the challenges inherent in transmitting language and culture in bilingual households.

And yet, what this Saskatchewan couple practises is bilingualism as an added value, where Canada’s two cultures and official languages each take their rightful place, side by side, day after day. Geneviève and Doug have a few tricks up their sleeves for making this experience a rewarding adventure for their entire family.

Credit: Geneviève Clark

“I want to give my children the gift of my French heritage,” says Geneviève. “To give them a legacy that is alive and well in me.” Elder daughter Evelyne attends the École canadienne-française de Saskatoon—an absolute must for this bilingual family. Geneviève says that while it’s the school’s job to teach the language, her job as a parent is to pass on the culture as well as the language.

This point of view is shared by Doug, who wants to give his children the incredible opportunity that he never had. “I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and didn’t discover the French language and culture until later on in life. It’s a tremendous asset not only to be able to express yourself in several languages, but also to see the world through the lens of different cultures.”

It takes a village

Although the gift these Saskatchewan parents are talking about is priceless, the giving of it presents many challenges in a mostly English-speaking province. “We can’t do it on our own. We need support from both the school and the community,” says Geneviève. “It really does take an entire village to raise a bilingual child,” she adds.

That’s why Geneviève created a blog called Bilingual Families. Loaded with tips, information and guest posts, the blog seeks to break the isolation in which bilingual families often find themselves.

Doug also acknowledges that raising a bilingual family requires an open mind. “When travelling on business, I’ve found myself in situations where English wasn’t the language of communication, but it didn’t bother me if I didn’t catch everything that was being said around me. It’s just like having a meal with my Québécois in-laws!”

Joie de vivre

Credit: Geneviève Clark

Raising a bilingual family is a true partnership between two parents with different languages and cultures—a fine balance that needs to be created and nurtured. Perseverance and support are two of the keys to success for Geneviève and Doug. Ever since their children were born, the couple has been using the technique where each parent speaks to the children in his or her own mother tongue. In other words, one parent, one language. Geneviève has also come up with a way to remind herself to always speak to her children in French. “Every time I forget to speak to my kids in French, I put a penny in a jar.”

Despite the need for a certain vigilance, Geneviève says that speaking French should be a fun activity. “I want our discussions to be as spontaneous as possible. I emphasize the festive side of the culture, the joie de vivre that is synonymous with Francophone people.”

Culture is at the heart of the Clarks’ lives. They take advantage of every opportunity that arises in their community, and they don’t even blink an eye at the idea of travelling thousands of kilometres to visit Geneviève’s family in Quebec.

“During an extended stay on Baffin Island, I was able to see just how much the loss of language and culture can affect people,” says Doug. “I saw children who couldn’t communicate with their grandparents because they didn’t know the language of their ancestors. I promised myself that that would never happen with my children.” He admits to having a certain admiration for his Québécois in-laws, who are fully bilingual. “Our conversations are in both languages. It’s not unusual for me to speak to them in English and for them to answer me in French.” The post titled “Papi et Mamie” on Geneviève’s blog clearly illustrates the richness that two languages and two cultures hold for the Clark family.

Seizing every opportunity

For this Saskatchewan couple, every occasion is a valuable opportunity for living their bilingualism day in and day out. Every evening at supper time, they speak French at the table. Doug admits that sometimes it’s harder to concentrate at the end of the day, although that doesn’t diminish how grateful he is for these priceless moments. “I try to encourage French as much as possible at home,” adds Doug. “We watch French TV programs and I read stories to my kids in both languages.”

Just like at home

Credit: Geneviève Clark

Since they were babies, the girls have been brought up in a bilingual and bicultural household, so it’s second nature for them to switch back and forth between languages.

“English and French are an integral part of their lives. They don’t really differentiate between the two,” the young mother points out, and then goes on to say that Evelyne felt right at home on her first day of school. “It was a bit like at home, because even though it’s a French-language school, you still hear a lot of English.” As Geneviève wrote in her post titled “First Day of French School”, 66% of Canadian children who attend an all-French school come from bilingual households.

Incredible richness

As for the future, both Geneviève and Doug agree that the choices their children make about identity, culture and language are their own. Geneviève wrote recently on her blog that the notion of identity is, by definition, temporal, fluid and changing. You can’t impose an identity on your children, or even a language, but at least you can let them benefit from the incredible richness of growing up in a bilingual household.

Published on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

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