Freeing French: Kevin Felix Polesello, Quebec's language ambassador
For many of us, learning a new language is limited to dusty memories of conjugating verbs on a blackboard. But for multilingual Montrealer Kevin Felix Polesello, to really understand a language—in his case, Quebecois French—you’ve got to get out of the classroom and onto the streets.
Felix’s blog, OffQc, reflects his day-to-day experiences listening to, and then demystifying, the French expressions he hears every day in Quebec. The result is an eye-opening, useful and utterly unique blog for all those interested in language and the role it plays in the culture of a place.
In the latest instalment of our series on masterful Canadian blogging, we caught up with Felix to talk paper routes, self-publishing and giving yourself permission to speak a language really, really badly.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Ontario, but I was always meant to be born in Montreal, so that’s why I live there. I’ve lived in different Canadian cities, like Halifax, Ottawa, and Toronto, and a few cities outside of Canada too, like Istanbul and Mexico, but Montreal is the place I call home. I’ve moved away a few times, but she keeps reeling me back in.
I write. I’ve done editing and translation, and some teaching work too. My very first job was delivering newspapers door-to-door as a kid. I think I had about 100 people on my route. I pushed around a huge cart full of newspapers in the streets. The cart was almost as tall as I was, and I was tall. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to avoid having it fall on top of me and crush me in the street.
What’s your history with the languages you speak?
The linguistic background of my family is diverse. My grandparents were native speakers of Italian, Polish and Ukrainian. I think that hearing different languages is what spurred me on to take an interest in them. I spoke English before I spoke French. I live in an Italian area of Montreal, where I speak French, Italian, English and Spanish every day.
When I write on OffQc, I often think of two languages that I learned as an adult: Spanish and Turkish. I was successful with one (Spanish) and failed miserably with the other (Turkish). When I was learning Turkish in Istanbul, I did it all wrong. I studied Turkish as though it were a school subject. I took classes. I studied my notes and vocabulary. But I wasn’t willing enough to take risks, to make mistakes. Even though I’d spent an extended amount of time in Istanbul, I never really managed to get past the basics.
When I was learning Spanish, I was determined to go down a different path. I decided that I would speak as often as I could in Spanish and to let my mistakes wash over me. I never took a class (in fact, I once did, but I dropped out after the first day), and I never used learning materials. I made Spanish-speaking friends and listened to them speak to each other for hours on end for months. I participated in conversations. I built my vocabulary by reading, but mostly by listening. I became a fluent speaker of Spanish in Canada.
It’s true that I probably had a big head start in Spanish because of my linguistic background. But if I were to tackle Turkish again today the way I did Spanish, I’m convinced I’d be a lot more successful this time and would find the experience much more enjoyable.
When and why did you decide to start this blog?
I started OffQc near the end of 2010. There’s a lot of mystery around Quebecois French, and I noticed that many people didn’t know how to learn it. That’s where I got the motivation to start the blog. I began pulling quotes from television shows and exploring the language used in them to help demystify things. I’ve also transcribed many videos so that you can listen and consult the text when you have doubts.
As I went along, I also discovered that many people have trouble taking risks in their learning and allowing themselves to make mistakes, like I did when I was struggling with Turkish. I started drawing on my experiences with Spanish and Turkish to encourage people to move past their limits. OffQc is a blend of exploring the French of Quebec and encouraging people to take responsibility for their learning.
I also wanted people to see that learning Quebecois French is no different to learning any other language. You listen to people speak, and you speak with them. There aren’t a lot of learning materials available though, which probably helps fuel the idea that learning Quebecois French is difficult. If you can reduce your dependency on learning materials and turn to authentic stuff instead, then it’s like learning any other language. In the end, fewer learning materials on the market is probably a good thing for the learner. It forces you to seek out authentic French sooner instead of relying on learning materials as a crutch.
Does your approach to writing differ when writing in English versus in French?
OffQc is written in English. Sometimes I do write my own examples of French, but most of the French that appears is taken from other sources, like YouTube videos, quotes from television series, or things that I catch other people say during a conversation or on the streets of Montreal. I do this so that the French on OffQc remains as authentic as possible. I don’t want OffQc to become a reflection of the French in my head. I want OffQc to be a reflection of the French that lives in the mouths of other people.
Why do you think it’s so hard to learn French the “traditional” way—taking classes, consulting dictionaries, etc.?
It’s hard to learn to speak French the traditional way because the traditional way isn’t meant to enable you to speak. It’s meant to deliver language to students in a way that enables teachers to assign marks. As adults, it’s difficult to break away from that system because that’s what we were taught language learning is all about. Except it’s not. Learning a language is about rediscovering your world with different people.
Learning French the traditional way makes you knowledgeable about French, but that’s not the same as being adept at speaking it. Even if you manage to recite a verb conjugated in all its tenses, speaking spontaneously in French during a conversation will still be a struggle if you do it the traditional way. Dictionaries and verb charts can be useful aids, but in small doses. They should never replace the more important work of taking a risk by speaking to people. That’s where the real learning of French takes place.
Have you ever been stumped by a phrase you overheard? What was it and what does it mean?
A friend from Honduras said: puchicamano. I thought this sounded funny, but I didn’t know what it meant. It turned out to be a Honduran expression meaning “gosh darn it.”
How do you keep your ears and eyes fresh? How do you continue to listen as someone who does not speak French well?
The only way to keep your ears and eyes fresh in another language is to keep putting yourself into new speaking situations. When speaking situations have become so easy that nothing new surprises you, seek out something more challenging to keep you on your toes.
If you don’t speak French well yet, pace yourself. You’ll probably get burnt out in the beginning if you go at it too hard. It takes time to form new habits, and learning French is going to require you to form a lot of new habits. Incorporate them into your daily life slowly over time. Do your best to have fun with French too, especially in the beginning. If you’re learning French independently as an adult, there’s no sense in making it stressful, as if you were still in school. Give yourself permission to be horrible in French and go find someone to speak with.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
My advice for aspiring writers is similar to my advice for learners of French. If you want to speak French, speak it. If you want to be a better listener, listen. If you want to write a blog, write it. You don’t necessarily have to hit the “publish” button every day, but do write every day in some form. Read. Observe people. Write stuff that you think you shouldn’t say and accept responsibility for having said it. Blogging is a great way to train yourself. Write something, publish it, and let the world read it. Then do it again. And again.
All images courtesy of OffQc.
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