I speak French. Not fluently, but I can get by. I've traveled to Quebec, and on more than one occasion to France. I've never ended up in the wrong train station, accidentally ordered tripe, or inadvertently insulted a hotel clerk's mother. (That one time, he had it coming.) I will undoubtedly fumble a verb tense or two, and use a technically correct but insufficiently specific noun from time to time, but communication will, by and large, be accomplished. As I said, I can get by.
I started learning French in Grade 5. We were, I think, a fairly unilingual bunch embarking on our French lessons that September, but by the Christmas assembly (or auditorium, or show, or pageant - whatever they called it at your school), we were able to sing Christmas Carols en francais with an accent that would have won us admission to the choir at Notre Dame.
But that's the thing: we were singing with a French accent, and most likely a Parisian accent. That's the French we learned. Problem is, the French that most of us were - as Canadians - and still are most likely to encounter is that spoken by our Eastern neighbours, the good people of la belle province, Quebec.
Quebec French is, of course, still French, but it differs markedly from the modern version spoken in the old country. That's not surprising when you consider that the ancestors of today's Quebecois generally left France some 300-400 years ago, and were cut off from direct contact when the British defeated the French at the Plains of Abraham. In 1759.
Quebecers speak French the way Brazilians speak Portuguese, or Mexicans speak Spanish. (Or Americans speak English, at least according to the English.) Yes, it's the same basic language, but it has both retained what the home country would consider archaic pronunciations and forms, as well as added variations and vocabulary all its own. Languages live, and evolve, and, particularly in isolation, become something quite different from what they started out as. To learn one is not necessarily to learn the other, and when they meet, mutual comprehension cannot be taken for granted.
When I visit Quebec, the problem is always the same: I can quite easily make myself understood, but I am usually at a loss when hearing the reply. It's not that they're using vocabulary that is unknown to me, but that they're speaking with an accent, and at a rate, that is unfamiliar: I would know what the words they're saying mean if I could just make out what words it is they are saying. (I believe many English-speakers feel the same way when conversing with Australians.) This is not the French we were instructed in.
Admittedly, practice plays a part. I don't hear any French, let alone Quebec French, very often. I don't have the discipline - or time, for that matter - to watch Radio-Canada news broadcasts, or Montreal Canadiens games, and I don't vacation in Rimouski. Familiarity may indeed breed contempt, but its absence engenders nothing but confusion.
Would matters stand differently if I had been exposed to the Quebecois version of the language in school? I like to think it would. An ear trained to the pronunciations, elisions, and contractions of French as she is spoke in the cafés, arenas, and offices of Sherbrooke, Val-d'Or, or Gaspé, couldn't help but have a better chance of deciphering, and quickly translating, even without recent practice.
I don't know how they teach French in our schools these days, but I hope that kids are being exposed to the domestic version. George Bernard Shaw once said that Britain and America were two countries separated by the same language. I hope we won't have to say the same thing about French in Canada.