Adapting to life in a French-speaking mining town

By Jocie Ferron

Some days, I shake my head and wonder how I came to live in a small mining town in the north of Quebec. But thanks to a work transfer for my husband, I left my nursing career, packed up our two little boys and moved.

We are now surrounded by beautiful Canadian forests, full of changing maple leaves in autumn, lakes galore and wonderful camping sites to explore. We have spotted a black bear, a beaver and have some squirrels and chipmunks who call our backyard home. Winter days see the snow pile up and the temperature can plummet to below -40 degrees Celsius, but then the long-awaited summer days arrive and they are so much more enjoyable after a long, cold winter.

I am lucky – my husband is not FIFO so the biggest challenge for me has been getting used to the French language in Quebec. As an Australian who had a passing (and I use that term very loosely!) knowledge of the language before coming here, it has been interesting to say the least.

My two sons have quickly picked up the language and I still get amazed when they speak French sentences using verb tenses I am still struggling with. It reminds me what an amazing cultural opportunity this is for the three of us (my husband already speaks French). Unfortunately though, learning a language does not come so easily when you’re an adult and I have had my fair share of frustrating experiences over failed conversations and misunderstandings.

So what have I learnt, and what’s my advice for anyone else out there in a similar situation?

1. Make the effort to learn the language

When you don’t understand what’s going on around you, life can feel quite isolated. At times it also makes you feel ‘silly’ (for want of a better word) especially when you can’t understand simple questions, or read the menu at a restaurant. So what should you do? Take a language course and/or find a multicultural organisation in the area. It is not only a good way to learn the language, but it gets you out of the house and you can meet some other people in the same situation, because the chances are you are not alone.

2. Just speak!

At first I just scowled whenever anyone said this, but it really is true. If you want to learn the language you have to speak and honestly, taking the first step is the hardest part. You have to just tell yourself, “right, today I will speak French – it might sound terrible, the grammar may be way off, but today I will make the effort”. It might be something as small as asking for a coffee, but when someone understands your feeble attempts, not only does it encourage you but it feels great.

The next time you try it gets a little easier, and eventually you just blurt it out, bad grammar and all. After 18 months here I would say my French is passable, to the point where I was working a couple of days a week in a shop. But I still made mistakes, which caused my co-workers many chuckles. What I have found is that most people will just be happy you have made the effort to try and speak their language.

3. Be proactive about making friends

When you don’t speak the primary language, it can be even harder to make that initial connection with others. The friends I have made didn’t just happen. It took the courage to call that first time, to try and catch up with them regularly – in other words to make the effort even when I didn’t feel like it. One of my good friends is a French speaker, and although we still have some communication issues we also have some great Fren-glish conversations! Having kids is a big help, you can always use the ‘Let’s get together so the kids can play’ to initiate a get together.

If all else fails, and you just need to vent a little because you can’t understand a darned thing in the paper, radio, television or grocery store … just kick a pillow or two around the lounge room. It helps.

Australian nurse Jocie Ferron was volunteering in Mongolia when she met her French-Canadian husband, who was working in the mining industry. After a few years living in Australia they decided to settle in Canada with their two young children. They enjoyed a few years in a north Quebec mining town (where Jocie had daily adventures navigating life in French) before moving to New Brunswick.

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