I recently had a metaphysical shudder. It’s a concept I learned about in my first-year English class, which was the last one taught by the late great Canadian poet and playwright Wilfred Watson before he died. Watson was a legend, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was just a country kid from a teensy rural town, wide-eyed with wonder at university life. And he was just another intimidating professor.
I wish now that I hadn’t been such a trembling fool, because—in spite of his genius—Professor Watson really wasn’t intimidating at all. In fact, he invited our class over to his house for tea and cookies. And he was genuinely interested in what we naïve and barely lettered undergrads had to say.
Professor Watson defined a metaphysical shudder as the unsettling feeling you get when diametrical opposites are juxtaposed. In class we discussed it in relation to images of sex and death juxtaposed in the poetry of Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.
Sex had nothing to do with my recent experience.
My metaphysical shudder was caused by a French Canadian folk song, “Alouette.” I had learned this as a children’s action song when I was a preschooler. And I remember being very proud of myself for knowing a French song. I glibly voiced the words with absolutely no understanding of what the song really meant—pointing to my nose (le nez), my head (le tete), my eyes (les yeux), my neck (le cou) and so forth.
The folk song “Alouette” was mentioned in a memoir I recently edited for a client. When I looked up the spelling to make sure I had it right, I learned the song was actually about a little lark that was being plucked for dinner—its eyes, its nose, its head, its neck and so forth.
It was a grisly shock! There was nothing child appropriate or cute about that song at all!
I was so dismayed by my discovery that I immediately called my big sister to see if she knew what “Alouette” was really about. (She would have been taking high school French when I was a preschooler, so I suspect she was the one who taught me the song in the first place.)
My sister did know what the words meant. But she only learned “the secret” when she was teaching “Alouette” to her elementary school pupils in St. Albert—one of Alberta’s first francophone settlements. The French language still thrives in St. Albert even though it is no longer the mother tongue of the majority of residents. That honour goes to Tagalog.
So I shuddered. And I thought about how blindly we blunder through life, sometimes. And I felt sad too.
Canada has been officially bilingual forever, but outside of Quebec, we’ve done a pitiful job of claiming the French language as our own and teaching it properly. I blame our system of language teaching. I don’t think Europeans are inherently smarter than Canadians, or that they have a better ear for language. Yet everywhere you travel, at least in the major cities, people speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language. Most Canadians only speak English. We’ve lost the mother tongues our ancestors brought with them, and we don’t speak our nation’s official second language either.
It’s a shame.
In my own case, French was first offered as a junior high option when I was in Grade 8. I opted for the science option instead. Not because I didn’t want to learn French. But because I didn’t think I would learn much. The teacher was a young Ukrainian miss who only had high school French herself.
My son took French in grades 4, 5 and 6 (and as an option in junior high), and although he had fine and qualified teachers, he speaks no French today. And not much Ukrainian either.
It’s a shame.