The research study articles we read for this course employ various theoretical frameworks to explain phenomena related to additional language learning and use. Whether it is based on the critical race theory or the post-structuralist identity theory, they all share an underlying assumption that people do something with language in social contexts. That is, every study we read thus far suggests that examining learner’s participation or non-participation in social interaction holds the key to understanding these phenomena. In this light, I reflected on my non-participation in French language use.
First, let’s make it clear. I have to confess that I am not the most sociable person in the world. For example, some people love to chat while waiting to pay at a grocery store or to see a doctor at a clinic, but I am not that kind. Time and time again, people have given me unsolicited advice that small talk is the lubricant of social interaction. Maybe their advice contains a sliver of truth or maybe not. However, there are certain social functions that I am obliged to attend. When such an occasion arises, I have to exert all my willpower to engage in a small talk. The situation becomes exponentially difficult when I have to chat using my not-so-perfect French.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a wine and cheese event for a good cause, and I had no excuse to stay away. When I arrived at the event in Old Montreal, the place was already crowded with people. The sound of clinking glasses, breezy jazz music, and cascading chatter in French filled the air. I breathed deeply and was ready to deploy my small-talk-avoiding strategies.
However, I was unlucky that night. Soon I found myself surrounded by a group of middle-aged French Canadian bankers who seemed to know one another. The topics of their chat were rapidly changing from a summer house in Lake Memphremagog to a good-will golf tournament at Le Mirage in Terrebonne. One of the participants in the chatter apologetically, yet condescendingly, explained to me where the lake and the golf course were. I just smiled and nodded to indicate that I was listening to the conversation, I was unable to participate in it, however, because I felt that I had nothing to contribute as I was an outsider.
Suddenly, a guy in the group looked at me and casually declared, “You are a quiet one! Are you shy?” I guess, it never occurred to him that French is my third language, so it was difficult for me to keep pace with their talk. Also, it likely never occurred to him that what they believed to be commonly shared experiences were not actually shared by me.
This was not the first time somebody had asked me whether I was shy. It happened numerous times while I was learning French.
For example, I was in an intensive beginner’s level French class. For the first thirty minutes in the mornings, the instructor put the students into pairs to make us talk in French. He usually prepared a couple of prompts to initiate our morning chit-chats. Much to my annoyance, he included topics such as ‘what I did yesterday,’ ‘my childhood dreams,’ ‘favorite places I have visited,’ and ‘my plans for the future’ and so on. In every pair interaction session, I was forced to share my personal life stories with someone I hardly knew. Moreover, I was quite aware that the classroom relationships were at best transient, as if we were temporarily sharing a train coach, so I didn’t see any reason to invest myself in this learning situation.
In this environment, I reluctantly participated. Evidently, my resistance to the in-class activity participation was very visible from the beginning since the instructor quickly labeled me a timid person. Probably, he was to some extent right: I am naturally more reticent about my personal affairs than other people. Surprisingly, however, I guess it never occurred to him that the environment he created was not inviting enough for me to share stories from my personal life.
I have to admit that there were other occasions when I was unable to take part in a conversation, even though both the environment and the structure of discourse were congenial.
For example, once a friend of mine invited some other friends and me to his family home for a Thanksgiving dinner. After a nice dinner, we sat around in the living room next to the fireplace. As is often the case, we talked about many things while emptying a bottle of single malt Scotch. Suddenly, the topic changed to American TV drama series like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. It was quite bizarre to see my francophone friends talking about American TV shows that were not even aired on a French language channel. I don’t recall all the details of the discussion that evening, but they were talking about fictional characters in the TV drama series like Jon Snow of Game of Thrones and Walter White of Breaking Bad.
While everyone was exchanging lively remarks about TV show characters, I remained silent because I had never been interested in these TV shows, so I hadn’t followed them rigorously. Thus, all I could do was swirl my scotch and ice while flashing a knowledgeable smile. I could have passionately participated in the chat if the topic had been operas: I would have loved to talk about John the Baptist in Salome or the title character of Lucia di Lammermoor, but nobody in the group that night seemed interested in operas, so I simply smiled and kept silent.
Suddenly, one of my friends said, “All of sudden, you are quiet. Have you become shy? Oh! Maybe was it because we have been chatting in French?” I didn’t answer, and simply smiled and poured another glass of whiskey. I guess, it never occurred to her that the conversation topic was not even mildly interesting to me.