A Declaration of Love: March 2021

The International Day of French as a World Language is an annual event sponsored by OIF – Organisation internationale de la francophonie, an institution with a membership of 88 countries whose mandate is to promote French language and culture, as well as diversity, education, peace, democracy, human rights and multilateral cooperation in such fields as sustainable development. If its latest report states that there are about 300 million French speakers worldwide, there can be no doubt that Canada has a vital role to play within this large cultural family spread across five continents.
A pioneer of French education in English-speaking Canada since the early 1960s, TFS is proud to have brought to the fore the concept of bilingualism as an integral part of our national consciousness. In keeping with our school’s historical identity, this year we are honoured to be an active partner of Toronto’s Semaine de la francophonie, which takes place between March 20 and 27, and presents a varied program of artistic, literary and scientific activities. Our four branches are participating in this collective effort through a range of assemblies and other events (in some cases in conjunction with our partner schools in France, Spain and Morocco), in order to offer our students the opportunity to expand their international outlook through direct contact with a world to which they have access thanks to their command of the French language.

In this context, we could ask ourselves why TFS made the conscious choice of placing French at the centre of education from the moment of its foundation, and why our students continue to take an interest in the language today, even if for the most part it is not their mother tongue. While my own personal relationship with French, which I started learning in Grade 4, could not possibly give a full answer to these questions, I believe that my story can illustrate the profound affection that a non-native speaker can feel for the language, as well as the importance of bilingualism (and multilingualism, for that matter) in the development of intercultural skills. Indeed, every new language we learn gives us a different outlook on the world and has an impact on the way we construct ourselves as individuals, citizens and humans.

Born in Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city and capital of what Cervantes already called the Catalan nation in the 17th century, my heart beats to the rhythm of the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. As you might know, the links between Catalonia and France are historically very strong. If by virtue of the Treaty of the Pyrenees we were obliged to cede a part of our territory to Louis XIV (the provinces of Roussillon, Conflent and Cerdagne, to be precise), it is no less true that we Catalans have always viewed our northern neighbours with the greatest admiration, as a society that is worthy of emulation. The geographical and emotional proximity of the two countries finds a natural expression in the history of my own family. It was in Brassac, a village in the Tarn region where a cousin of my father’s had worked in the grape harvest, that I established my first contact with France, a bond forged at the age of eight and never to be broken.

While political exiles leave their countries of origin in search of protection and healing, expatriates simply look for wider horizons in new homelands. In other words, they do not flee in an attempt to suppress painful memories: they travel to add other landscapes to their vision, other nations to their spirit. Such is my case. As an expatriate having lived away from Spain for much of my life, I sometimes wonder how my identity would have evolved, had I not spent 24 years in Britain – or had I not embarked in 2015 on the transatlantic adventure that brought me to Canada. Having said that, it is not about those two admirable nations that I would like to talk today, but about France and, most particularly, my experience as a postgraduate student in Paris. How could I forget my strolls along the Seine or through the medieval lanes and alleys of the Latin Quarter, the hours I spent doing research at the Saint-Geneviève Library or visiting the Pantheon? Paris is an effervescent city where intellectual fervour and Socratic questioning enliven every conversation.

It was indeed in Paris that the French language started becoming a metaphoric homeland to me, a country of adoption made of the books that fell into my hands, the literature that my eyes and my soul were only too eager to absorb. For it was Mirabeau, the “orator of the people,” who raised my awareness of human rights, and the revolutionary Olympe de Gouges who engraved in my mind that women are born free and equal in rights to men. Marguerite Yourcenar and Michel Tremblay showed me the power of love, whether embodied by a Roman emperor or a scoffing young Montrealer. Thanks to Colette, I was able to understand the plight of the soldiers who fought in the trenches during the Great War, while I am indebted to Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon for making me understand the gulf separating the colonizer from the colonized. If from Zola I learnt that we must denounce miscarriages of justice, Pierre Assouline reminded me that the dividing line between good and evil is at times more blurred than we would like. Inspired by Pham duy Khiêm, I have seen the tropical shadows of a distant nation where people travel up and down rivers, but it took the writings of Aimé Césaire to make me realize that the descendants of slaves, deprived of their land and their language, feel a need to vociferate, to shout out their wrongs, to roar like lions. Marguerite Duras and Simone Veil poured on me the unfathomable anguish of death camp survivors, and Tahar Ben Jelloun convinced me that all dictatorships trample on human dignity. If I think of Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, I will never forget what one of his major characters taught me, namely that a hero’s sacrifice is all the more beautiful when it is futile. To finish this literary voyage through some of the experiences and feelings haunting our species, I would like to mention Gabrielle Roy, as it was this Canadian author who reaffirmed me in my belief that all children are good by nature and that hatred is the worst possible scourge we can suffer as human beings.

By providing this relatively long list of names, I wanted to pay tribute to some of the authors who have been and continue to be my most loyal companions on my life’s journey. Language is not, after all, a simple list of arbitrary signs used to name the objects around us, but rather a complex philosophical system offering us a window from which to look at the world and forge our identity. Which means that, when our students study science, geography or art in French, they do not just learn new vocabulary: they in fact acquire the thought patterns of that language and are exposed to the physical and spiritual realities of its speakers. At TFS we are particularly fortunate on this front, as it is the global dimension of francophonie that shines through our education thanks to the presence of professionals hailing not only from France and Quebec, but also from such countries as Switzerland, Belgium, Haiti, Lebanon, Congo, Chad, Morocco and Algeria.

In addition to the elegance of French, our students are enriched by the diversity of the mother tongues they speak, the various ancient and modern languages they learn, as well as their mastery of English, a language that brings to them a venerable tradition stretching from Chaucer to Virginia Woolf, from Shakespeare to James Baldwin. Without a doubt, multilingualism brings something very special to our community, an ontological and epistemological depth that is truly beyond compare. Words speak to our students, they open new doors to them leading to previously unknown worlds. During Poetry Week at La p’tite école, poems were posted on the staircase, with one line on each step, and I was surprised to see the curiosity of the children, as they stopped and stared at the mysterious words in cursive script in an attempt to grasp their meaning. Similarly, I was captivated by the intellectual ability shown by the Senior School students who took part in the Poetry in Voice competition. One of them managed to learn and internalize two great poems by John Keats and Charles Baudelaire, which he recited in English and French respectively, both with admirable force. Such is the linguistic and human richness imbuing what I see and hear in our classrooms.

While Catalan, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin and Greek are all very close to my heart, I would ask you, on the occasion of this Semaine de la francophonie, to allow me to proclaim to the wide world my eternal love for the language of Molière and Racine. Following Albert Camus, for whom the Mediterranean meant so much, I will venture to say that “my homeland is the French language.”

May all lands be so gracious and bountiful, all nations so beholden to its citizens.

Dr. Josep González
Head of School