Teaching English or French in Montreal: The Challenges of Cultural Identity
It is common knowledge that language and culture go together. However, as language teachers, we often don’t consider what this means in terms of our teaching practices. Based on my experience both as a language learner and teacher, I have come to understand how cultural identity and language teaching are highly intertwined and make learning a new language in Montreal a unique experience. My first recollections combining language learning and cultural identity go back to my first months in Montreal, in the classe d’accueil, where I was to learn the new language of the country in which I had just arrived. Until that moment, culture had a very vague and ambiguous meaning to me. Arriving in this new city, however, I started to understand what it meant, as I was forced to struggle with making sense of my identity when placed in a cultural context foreign to me. What I thought would be classes about French grammar and vocabulary ended up being so much more: a place where I learnt about a new way of living through the language I was learning.
I remember the feeling of frustration which I was dealing with internally when I couldn’t translate everything I meant to say with precision. I started to realize that how I communicated in my native tongue, Romanian, would be different from how I learn to communicate in French or English. For instance, jokes which were so funny in Romanian were nonsensical remarks in French after I had translated them to my new friends. It took me quite some time to understand that the jokes were funny in one language because of their background story, and because of a mutual social understanding of that background story that a society shares which may be nonexistent in another. Many such instances came across in my language learning journey, which made me wary of, and at times resistant to the learning process, because I felt that the new languages I was acquiring weren’t close to my cultural identity and background. Even though I was learning French at a fast pace and had no trouble communicating with my new friends, I was internally questioning who I was becoming. Everything I knew about how I talk to others was to be replaced by another way of expressing myself which fitted in this new cultural context.
I began this reflective article with this short anecdote to illustrate the unique and difficult task it is to be a language learner in Montreal. By extension, it is an equally challenging task to be a language teacher. Now that I am a language educator myself, I can sympathize with my own French teacher and her struggle to understand her students’ unwillingness to collaborate in the learning process. Teaching a second language in Montreal goes far beyond teaching the language: it entails being able to adapt to different cultures, being able to understand why young (or sometimes adult) learners feel frustration or resistance towards a new language. Learning a new language (particularly French and English, because of the dominant role they play in Montreal’s academic, social, and professional spheres) in such a multicultural context as a newcomer can be a very demanding task, not only cognitively, but also emotionally, because it requires the learner to introspectively deal with how this changes their cultural identities. This is why in my view, being a language teacher in Montreal is unlike any other teaching job. It deals closely with the learner’s identities as they change and adapt to new cultural climates, oftentimes completely different from what they have known thus far.