Learning French without “dropping the potato”

Posted on January 10, 2022

In 1975, I left Belfast in Northern Ireland to come to Canada. I worked for a few years in Ontario before trying my luck in Montréal. With the ink of the Charter of the French Language not quite dry, learning French was my top priority.

However, because I wasn’t admissible to the Government of Quebec’s francization program and because my job at a tobacco factory kept me very busy, I had to make do with 45 hours of French-language training provided by my employer before jumping feet first into life in French.

I rented a place close to the factory where I worked, at the corner of Ontario and D’Iberville. I feasted on French TV shows, movies, music and books. I even went to Sunday mass to force my brain to convert the English prayers I knew by heart into French.

Finally, after a candlelight dinner, which was undoubtedly successful because I could only listen, I had a girlfriend. Thanks to her and her circle of friends, I slowly acquired reasonable oral comprehension and speaking skills.

For three decades, I got by, but I was always afraid of sounding like an idiot in professional and social settings. I was embarrassed each time I was made aware of one of my language blunders.

Even though integrating became even more stressful because I felt insecure about my French, it never occurred to me to take some French courses. After all, I was doing well, and I had other more pressing priorities to deal with. In fact, it was only when I retired that I could even think about remedying my many linguistic shortcomings.

To enrich my vocabulary, I would write down new words that I came across while listening to the news, movies and TV shows, and reading novels. Then, I would look up their definitions and sometimes their pronunciations in a dictionary.

Over time, my plan yielded positive results. Near my home, I immediately understood the play on words in an advertising slogan on a billboard: “Bio de la tête aux pis” (organic from head to udder). “Pis,” meaning “udder” in English, does sound somewhat like “pieds” (feet). On TV, when French actress Cécile Bois said “nuit et jour” (day and night), I heard her pronounce the consonant “t,” which is usually silent in French.

I tackled grammar by reading novels, where it comes to life and is easier to grasp. When what I was reading made me discover rules that were unknown to me, I would turn to a grammar book.

As you may know, grammar books don’t read like novels. In fact, the language used to explain grammar rules can often be more opaque than the rules themselves.

What’s more, my grammar book wasn’t very encouraging. For instance, I read that “… gender is rarely predictable, but it poses no problems for those whose mother tongue is French” and “certain verbs are conjugated with être or avoir depending on the nuance of the context …” (bold font added by the author of the blog post).

Nevertheless, I refused to give up and, little by little, grammar lost its mystery. However, I still have a long way to go before I'll feel comfortable with it.

Would I have been better served by a francization program with a curriculum, teacher, lessons and tests? Logically, yes, but I might have found learning grammar to be too daunting, which could have led me to abandon my efforts.

Instead of a well-structured program, I slipped into a francization that was “organic and osmotic.” (Can you tell I majored in chemistry?)

My approach, despite its imperfections, has proven to be effective: after so many years, I’m happy to continue to learn my beloved adopted language every day.

There’s a Quebecois expression that means “to persevere, to not give up”: ne pas lâcher la patate (literally “to not drop the potato”). Now, more than ever, there’s no way that I’ll drop that potato.

Translated by Patrick McKenna


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Get to know Patrick McKenna

Patrick McKenna

Originally from Northern Ireland, Patrick McKenna has lived in Montréal since 1978. Although he didn’t start off with a very strong foundation, he managed to learn enough French in three years to pursue a career and live a full life in that language. He loves French because it connects him with part of his identity: his passion for languages, which he discovered only after immigrating to Canada.


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Submitted by Louis Bouchard on January 10, 2022, at 19:49

Beautiful story of perseverance. I wish people who are trying to learn French in the government will read it.
You must have love Montreal and the French language a lot to put so much efforts.
Like you, I learned my English mainly by osmosis as well but unlike you, more by necessity living as a francophone in a sea of anglophones.

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