One of the most attractive aspects of studying at the University of Ottawa, and in Ottawa in general, is that it is bilingual in both French and English. Everywhere you go, you can hear a nice mix of the two languages, sometimes even in the same sentence! For those who are bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages, it is a wonderful thing. Even those who are not fully bilingual but understand French benefit. But for those who are like me, who didn’t grow up learning and speaking French, it can sometimes be a struggle to live in Ottawa.
There have been many times when I have walked around various locations in downtown Ottawa, such as in the Byward Market or through the Rideau Centre, and someone has approached me to ask a question, but only speak in French. After they have asked their question in rapid French, I stumble out a “Je ne parle pas français, sorry.” I always feel bad after they walk away because I wish I could have helped them, but had no idea how to do it. I barely even understood what they said! This happens more often than you’d think. Sometimes it’s when I miss the English half of a statement and struggle to figure out the French half, like when there are announcements over a loudspeaker or when the next bus stop is announced. Sometimes it’s when I am in a store and trying to read a sign that’s in French. It happens all the time and makes me wish I had a strong French background.
I get lucky; my little knowledge of Italian allows me to piece together some words that are very similar in both languages. I am also able to pick out some of the words I remember my dad explaining to me on our trips to Montreal. I also have a few bilingual friends who help me out by explaining what each word means. I think without these resources, I could potentially be running around Ottawa like a chicken with its head cut off.
Despite sometimes struggling to figure out what is being said in French, Ottawa is a great place to learn more French. Because it is a bilingual city, every sign, museum exhibit, plaque, etc., is written in both French and English, allowing me to expand my vocabulary and pick up certain phrases. There are also a lot of bilingual people who live and work in Ottawa, who are willing to help you if you get lost or need help. Living in Ottawa allows you to learn French in a way that isn’t just sitting in a classroom and memorizing grammar rules (although if I could fit a French class in my schedule, I would). Ottawa allows you to really learn the French language in your own way while still being able to fall back on English when needed.
So if you’re like me, lost when it comes to French in this bilingual city, I suggest you get out there and see what you can learn. Download an app to help practice, read some signs, listen to some conversation, and do whatever works for you! And remember, it’s okay to struggle with French, whether you have a background in French or not. You’re not alone!