Bilingualism: A gift from my father

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Posted on 
September 3, 2021
Written by 
Michael Vandergrift (About the author) , Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Privy Council Office

When Lucie Séguin, Chief Executive Officer of the Translation Bureau, gave me the opportunity to write this post, I knew I would want to reflect on how bilingualism and French as a second language have played a special role in my life, even though my own skills and confidence have varied over the years.

I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and studied French as a subject in school, as many other students did. However, there was one small difference between the other students and me: my father was the high school French teacher. I remember that it was occasionally awkward to be in his class. However, I now value the memory of seeing his love of language and teaching in action. As for my relationships with my classmates, all I can say is that it was a good thing I was captain of the basketball team!

When I was in Grade 11, my father/teacher organized an exchange for our class with a school in St-Georges de Beauce. I believe he applied to a federal program in place at that time to support these exchanges. The family of my Québécois counterpart generously hosted me for a week, and this visit left a lasting impression. Not only did I taste poutine for the first time, I also experienced what French was like when you actually live it, not just read it in the pages of a textbook. Later, the richness of this experience motivated me to spend time immersed in the French language in Jonquière and in Trois-Rivières during my university years.

I credit those experiences of lived French with helping me to acquire the language and appreciate its complexity. It was also humbling to experience the challenges of living in a second language. Clearly, it was only by consistently using the language that I could truly improve.

However, these episodes are on one end of the pendulum marking my level of ease in my second language throughout my life. It often swung back the other way. As is true for many people, these learning experiences weren’t always followed up with continued practice and use, and I have only myself to blame for allowing my skills to become rusty at times and my confidence to wane.

But thankfully the pendulum hasn’t stayed there. I’m drawing on the foundations of my past experience to use my second language more naturally and regularly at work. And I’m happy that there are language resources, such as those of the Language Portal of Canada (opens in new tab), available to help me to continually improve. I’m grateful to those whom I work with every day for their patience.

These efforts have paid off throughout the pandemic with the many opportunities I’ve had to engage with colleagues at Public Services and Procurement Canada in town halls, team meetings and other events in both official languages. Communication was and is vitally important. I’ll take with me those positive experiences, and I resolve to not let the pendulum swing back but instead do more and push myself out of my comfort zone in my second language, as francophone colleagues so often do. I also know I can do more to create a space for others to work in both official languages.

How have you created a space for people to use both official languages at work? What do you do to maintain and improve your skills? I’d love to hear your stories.

Now, back to my father who started it all. He took a mid-career risk to follow his passion and obtained a doctorate in second language education, with a focus on listening acquisition. He later taught future educators at the University of Ottawa and had an active research program that reached teachers all over the world. He passed away all too soon five years ago, and as I reflect while writing this piece, I wish I could thank him for giving me those formative experiences and an appreciation for bilingualism in Canada.

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Michael Vandergrift
Michael Vandergrift

Michael Vandergrift

Michael Vandergrift was appointed Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs at the Privy Council Office in August 2021. Previously, he was Associate Deputy Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada. He began his executive career in 2003 and has held various leadership positions, including Director General, Policy, Planning and International Affairs, at Health Canada and Assistant Secretary, International Affairs, Security and Justice, at the Treasury Board Secretariat.

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