French – best learnt before your Supreme Court nomination

Witness this month’s exchange in the press between Justice Marshall Rothstein and NDP MP Joe Comartin (Judge rebukes NDP MPs for claiming he broke vow to learn French), as well as Justice Moldaver’s vow to try to get his French into hearing-ready form (Supreme Court nominee vows to improve French skills).  However these two stories run their course, and whatever may be the fairness to the nominees, what can be the effect of cornering judges into making these impossible promises before they take high office?  Can any good come out of this, for judicial independence and the rule of law?  Any Canadian who has mastered French as a second language knows it takes years of study and regular use in daily life.

How does one answer the discouraging conventional thinking that one must start learning a second language as a child (displayed in the graphic, top left)? Simple: most did start to acquire it, from grade school years.  It is a matter of recovering and improving it as an adult.  Get past that concept, and then you will see it is a matter of adult education, otherwise known as andragogy.  Andragogy relies on factors such as motivation, enjoyment and daily relevance.  Without them, successes in learning tend to be rather fleeting.

Of course, cost is a great subduer of motivation.  Unlike the Supreme Court justices, who are offered French training as a perk, you may not be as motivated to shell out thousands on private tutors.  Not many are aware that the Ontario Bar Association has for years offered a course in French directed specifically at lawyers: French without Tears.  In Toronto, the Alliance française offers courses.  However, you have to think of such courses as kick-starts to resume the language training you received early in life.  The Ontario French-Speaking Lawyers Association, AJEFO, has great programmes, but most of the events take place in Ottawa, where there is already a higher concentration of French-speaking lawyers. The Ontario Bar Association is unique among law associations active in the Toronto region, in holding events and activities through its Comité des langues officielles.  A gathering of these law association groups is always a great venue for practicing your French, although they are not as frequent as one would like.

From a neurological perspective, second language acquisition involves immersion in a cognitive pattern over a long time.  This is a reason most Canadian anglophone lawyers in Ontario knew a fair bit of French by the time they graduated from high school, and then lost it almost entirely by the time they graduated with their law degree.  In fact, many put their kids in French immersion, but never speak to them at home in French.  Outside of pockets of bilingual or francophone communities, there is little chance to hear or use French, let alone employ it in legal practice.  Those who do keep it up and improve it know that it is a lifelong endeavour.  As I told a meeting of the Osgoode Hall Law School’s Franco-Osgoode club, don’t learn French to become bilingual.  Learn it to enjoy speaking French.  Once you understand the difference, you can do things to keep it up in daily life, both professional and personal.

Daily relevance is actually an easy factor to implement, if one takes a look at one’s routine and determines how French can be integrated.  One very good method is to program your smartphone and laptop computer to use French.  If you are a legal professional, you probably engage in more communication with your PDA and computer than with any single human in your office or at home.  If you get used to interacting with software in French, it will soon become second nature.  You will also have a guaranteed method of using French every day, even if it is to read, impossible de supprimer ce fichier (unable to delete this file).  Voilà!  By changing the language setting on your Blackberry or iPhone, you now have French as part of your daily routine.

Another method to incorporate French into your life is to listen to French podcasts instead of the daily rant on the radio.  Podcasts are widely available to listen while you are on your daily commute to the office.  For true francophile law junkies, there is no substitute for the La Justice, c’est comme la sainte vierge.  Named after a quote from author Michel Audiard, “Justice is like the Holy Mother – if you don’t see her from time to time, you start having your doubts,” this 6- minute segment of France Inter radio’s Sunday morning show, Le 5/7 du weekend introduces lawyers, judges, crime novelists and other justice-related French cultural personalities.

Many will also like France Culture radio’s La Rumeur du monde, a weekly show about the week’s international news events, featuring pundits, philosophers and academics.

The CBC (Société Radio-Canada) has plenty of great radio programmes available on “baladodiffusion” (Canadian French for the French word, “Podcast”), as does France Inter, the French equivalent of CBC Radio One.

If you do get to spend time with your family, and you have young kids learning French, once a month spend an entire day with them in French, from dawn to dusk.  It’s tough at first, but it works.  Combine it with lunch at a French restaurant and a movie, like Le Petit Nicolas.  Do it for yourself, and if their French grades improve, so much the better!

Try these methods out and let me know what you think.  It is the same advice I have given to a number of judges, many of whom are motivated to improve their French to meet the growing demand for bilingual hearings.  Besides, you never know when the Prime Minister might be calling. …

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