One of my great interests in life has been second language (L2) acquisition, and then third (L3) and beyond. I’m interested in the subject from a educational and cultural perspective more than from a political or economic one, while realizing the importance of the latter in creating bilingual societies and in international relations. I was personally involved in learning L2 and L3 from childhood on and, as an adult, when the opportunity presented itself, I tried to help make it possible for more people, especially children, to have access to what I consider to be an advantage in life. My participation in the St. Lambert Bilingual School Project was described in Sections I and II above.
What drew me to the subject of second language acquisition? I would say, first of all, family history, and then, the society in which I grew up. I could not help but be affected by the reality of being outnumbered linguistically by another language than my own in my own city and province. As a curious child, I wanted to know what was “in the air” in my province, both linguistically and culturally. I saw all those churches with a rosewater fragrance, which I sometimes entered out of curiosity; pale nuns in the streets in black habits that hid their hair and even their facial expressions, children in severe black school uniforms; little girls dressed as brides for first communion; radio stations that I could not understand with daily intonings of “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâce…” with its mesmerizing effect. All this was my second ambiance growing up in the western part of Montreal in the 1930’s, and I wanted to understand it. My primary ambiance was English Protestant to which I felt I belonged only in part because of my dual inheritance.
As far as my family history is concerned, I had what I consider an advantage of growing up in a bilingual home and hearing two languages from day one. My mother was from Russia and spent the first twenty-four years of her life there, but she had to leave her homeland in 1919 because her society was being torn apart by World War I, the Communist Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. She had the advantage of being married to a British naval officer who had been in Russia for five years and who was in a position to help her and some members of her family to escape to England.
Linguistically speaking, my mother brought with her to England her Russian tongue, a fair knowledge of German from having had a German governess, a smattering of French learned at school, and about fifty words of English – of the order, as she recalled, of “ruler, pencil, pen” – not all that useful on arrival in Liverpool, England. The rest of her life would be spent mostly in English-speaking countries – England and Canada, and, over the years, she acquired a fair knowledge of English, which she spoke with a slightly British accent. She never mastered certain grammatical rules and would typically say “I have been downtown yesterday.” She never accepted English spelling; rather, she improvised as she went along: “wisky” for the drink, “Pensilvania” for the state. She refused to deal with the inconsistencies of English spelling since such inconsistencies were more rare in Russian. She felt her children were wasting precious school time on spelling, while they could be learning something more useful. For formal correspondence, she would ask for help. This distaste for English spelling did not interfere with her enjoyment of reading English newspapers and novels on a daily basis. My parents always communicated with each other in Russian, as they had from their first meeting in Russia in 1915, and my mother only spoke Russian to us, so we children (my two sisters and myself) were exposed to the language on a daily basis.
Knowledge of foreign languages was considered by my mother to be a “must” so she hired a French teacher for my sisters. I was the youngest in the family so I was not included in the lessons, but I would hang around and listen. It was not until my mother started hiring French maids when I was six years old that I started for real to learn French. I learned enough so that in elementary English school I added only two French words to my vocabulary. I still remember what the two words were – “canif” and “niveau.” Not a great reflection on what was taught in the English systems over a five-year period of elementary school.
My father was born in England and, as an English school boy, he learned some French grammar, but was not able to converse in French. Because of limited resources, his father pulled him out of school when he was fifteen years old, even though he was on a scholarship to a prestigious school, the Liverpool Institute. To help the family coffers, he first took a job with the Canadian Pacific Company and then other local shipping companies. He went to night school to study Spanish and I still have his exercise book filled with Spanish verbs. This came in handy when he later went to Spain for two years.