You might not remember me. Indeed, I only just barely remember you. Nonetheless, your influence on my life has been immense. I am one of your many many Whitehorse Elementary French Immersion students. As a wide-eyed pupil in your grade three class, you helped me take my first step in learning how to learn a new language. That step has since become a journey– a road that has taken me to many lands and experiences so deep, dazzling and wonderful. By mastering languages I have been able to reach across the barriers of culture to make the most unlikely of friendships, loves and collaborations . For all this I am so grateful.
But it wasn’t a smooth start. As you may recall, I was one of your “remedial” students. I struggled to learn French in your class and often I had to stay after school to catch up. I remember being the last student in the classroom on cold, dark, Yukon winter evenings. You would stay extra hours to help students like me who had fallen behind. I remember running magnetic picture cards through a white machine to hear the corresponding French word. You then had me speak the word, repeating it over and over until I got it right. You would be working at your desk, yet every once and a while you would catch my mispronunciation, and encourage me to try once again.
Decades later, I realize that what I learned those evenings wasn’t just French, but something far more important: how to speak my words right. Speaking a word, getting it wrong, repeating it a little better, failing, repeating, over and over again, until I got it right, is a trick that has stayed with me all my life. It’s the simplest of skills– an ethic of attention, focus and perseverance.
It is also a key that has opened doors everywhere I have gone.
When my family moved from Whitehorse to Ottawa, I was enrolled again in French immersion. My parents and teachers were astonished to discover that my Yukon French was at a higher level than my middle-school Ontarian peers. I seemed to be able to retrain my lessons better and… I enjoyed the classes! Even in a predominantly English high school, when I was no longer academically obliged, I kept taking French courses.
Speaking and failing. Repeating and refining. Wherever I have worked and lived around the world, I have striven to learn and to speak my words right. Upon landing in a new country the very first phrase in the local language is “Please let me repeat my word to see if I have understood correctly”.
In this way, learning to speak French fluently was just the beginning. Over the years, I have come to speak the languages of the places I have lived.
But not only have I learned to speak, there has always been something about my pronunciation and accent that people love. People can understand me. I have been told it has to do with the clarity and clearness of my speech– almost a lack of an accent. Not even French Canadians can guess where I am from: “What is that accent?” they ask. It’s too difficult to explain, so it remains my little secret: it is my Whitehorse Elementary accent!
On this journey, have learned that the effort and energy one invests in speaking clearly the words of others is a way to honor the people and culture of a place. To learn the words of another language is to give attention and energy to that culture and the people who belong to it. It is a universally appreciated act– especially for small or dwindling language groups. Being able to give this gift, has led to spectacular intercultural connections. These moments and connections could have only happened speaking the tongue of the people of the land….
Traveling by bicycle through Europe, I have heard firsthand the soul chilling tales of veterans from the Second World War– in French, Dutch and as well German. I’ve worked and lived with Icelandic farmers, riding horses on black frozen beaches and sharing jokes on the side of the potato field. I’ve learned a special spaghetti recipe from an Italian grandmother, cooking in her kitchen in a her Valencia village. Learning and speaking Spanish I’ve had so many beautiful experiences throughout Central America– connections of the heart and friendship I will long cherish. On the floor of a humble home in a Gaza refugee camp, I’ve heard the stories of the trials and tribulations of a family and their people, that I would never have heard on CNN. Living among the Igorot people of the Northern Philippines I stumbled upon kernels of ancestral wisdom hidden in their linguistics that I feel have great import for our modern age. Stranded in a snow storm, I was taken in by monks in a Belgian monastery and over a decade have kept up my friendship with a 90 year old Monk who speaks only French. And now, in Indonesia, I conduct national TV and radio interviews on ecologically critical topics, connect with leaders, politicians and just regular people, quietly engaging a country to action.
Sometimes people suggest that I must have a “talent for languages”. Really, I was the slowest in your whole class! The truth is, learning languages, reaching across cultures and connecting, simply comes down to perseverance and pronunciation– trying again and again until one’s words are clear and correct.
It is something that I learned from my French Immersion teacher in grade three at Whitehorse Elementary.
Merci beaucoup Madame Henderson.