A Teacher in Her Own Right, or Multilingualism as the Key to Self-Accomplishment


KEY TO KNOWLEDGE.jpgMeeting language professionals, whether they be translators, linguists, or simply teachers, is undoubtedly always of a great moment to someone who aspires to, one day, pride themselves on being one. Gabrielle Delisle, a linguist with long-standing expertise and seasoned medical translator, is also a versatile professor at the Department of Linguistics and Translation at the University of Montreal. This accomplished woman knows how important it is to mix with right people as you are carving out a languages-related career for yourself. She knows what it is like to scramble up the long and tortuous staircase of the linguistic world as well as to live through all vertiginous ups and downs related to the phenomenon of the translator`s pessimism. And, what is more, Madam Gabrielle knows when the moment of wanting to share your knowledge with the younger generation comes and marks the level of the overall professional maturity you have achieved over time. Besides, it was the latter that spurred her to eventually become a simple teacher who, nevertheless, does not let her translator`s skills blunt.

At age 64, Madame Delisle is in perfect shape, both physically and spiritually. Working at the UdeM and at Novartis, a prestigious pharmaceutical company, - part-time here, part-time there - she still finds enough time to dedicate to other things than just that explosive mixture of work. Sitting down to have a conversation with her makes me realize what it is like to be in the presence of someone who is really enthused by what they do. Being a budding translator myself, I can definitely relate to all the linguistics- and translation-related points she makes, either because I have already dealt with some of them or because some of them have been haunting me for a while. I met Madam Gabrielle through a friend of mine who is also in translation (but at the UdeM), and she was as kind as to introduce me to this great woman who I now regard as a perfect role model for those who are born linguists. Addressing her for the first time, I can sense a tiny amount of the reservedness that is so characteristic of most teachers which, as the conversation unfolds, gets almost dissolved in her natural jovial disposition. Madam Gabrielle even seems quite comfortable resorting to gesturing, especially as we touch upon the burning topic of bi- and multilingualism in Québec. So after half an hour of communicating with her, you can clearly see that she comes out as a very pleasant albeit quite composed individual. The bearing of this delicate but fairly deft woman speaks volumes about her incredible ability to stay a work ethic stickler without, however, becoming a nerdy demon for work. Looking at her, you could tell she loves having a good laugh over a cup of tea with a friend, chatting about this and that, this and that NOT necessarily being linguistics and translation. And yet, as Madam Gabrielle herself points out, "hard work is not something to be afraid or tired of; rather, it is a heavy golden key that you have to invest a great deal of your time forging whilst you are an adolescent if you want to open the door leading to a blissfully secure life as an adult and elder". By the looks of things, this woman has succeeded in forging herself such a key.

A Canadian-born francophone, originally from the beautiful village of St-Donat in the north of Québec, Gabrielle Delisle grew up in a bilingual family with two sisters and a brother, herself being the youngest of the three kids. Her mother, Élise DeFontenay, originally from the south of France, never insisted that her children learn to speak first and foremost French, with immense consideration for her husband whose mothertongue was English. Rather, she would always encourage her kids to speak both languages depending on which of the parents they talked with at a certain point. Gabrielle`s father, Michael Henley, would also always support his wife`s eagerness about linguistic equality within their family. Today, he acknowledges that it was not until he and Élise had their first child that he really started learning some basic French: "Before the coming into the world of our firstborn, I am ashamed to admit, I did not speak a word of French. Thankfully, Élise would always be very tolerant of my ignorance" he recalls with a hearty laugh. "But becoming a father of a child born of a francophone mother, I realized I had to give my child a good example of healthy bilingualism. At the time, Élise was very good at English, so I made my best to correspond. Virtually, it is speaking with my kids in English and asking them to translate certain words to French for me that I actually mastered the language". So growing up, Gabrielle and her siblings would always address their parents in French and English respectively. That being said, Gabrielle and the other kids would always refer to themselves as being "anglo-francos", even though, technically speaking, French was the first language they started to express themselves in: they would spend more time with their mother when they were small. Today, according to Madam Gabrielle, the fact of being born and growing up in a family where no chauvinistic unilingualism was ever imposed is the main reason she did not grow up to become a narrow-minded unilingual die-hard. Besides, that greatly stipulated her fondness of languages on the whole and her desire to weave that into her future profession.

As is known, the lucky position Gabrielle found herself in in terms of language due to the wise and open-minded Élise and Michael is way far from being typical - their point of view is, unfortunately, not shared by all parents, in Canada at least. Gabrielle herself recalls quite a lot of her fellow pupils at primary school who did not necessarily speak English as well as she did, even though either of their parents spoke this language as a mothertongue. That is truly something that has always made Madam Delisle desperate about the linguistic heritage of humankind - given the increase of international marriages from year to year, it would seem perfectly natural and logical that children born in such marriages should master both of the languages their parents speak as native. That, however, much to Madam Gabrielle`s regret, does not seem to always be the case in her native Québec.
"Apart from students born of anglo-or francophone parents, I do have a lot of students who were born in Canada but whose parents had immigrated from elsewhere. I have all the pain to admit that those students, in spite of being perfect at both English and French, do not speak a word of their parents` language. That is exactly how you lose your roots" she notes sadly. "And, of course, it is the parents who are to blame". As regards that, Madame Delisle has always taken a firm stance and for a good reason. Parents ARE responsible for how many-faceted and versatile the education that their children receive is. It is up to them, therefore, whether or not to inculcate their offspring with the linguistic values of their ancestors.

What I like about this person the most is that she does not simply blab about lofty ideals without directly implementing her principles in her own family. A mother of two, whose father is neither an anglo- nor a francophone but a lusophone, this woman has managed not only to preserve both French and English within her family but also to learn Portuguese so as to freely speak with her husband and to show a good example to her little kids. Now that her children are fully-fledged adults having their own kids, Madam Gabrielle is genuinely proud of being a multilingual mother of multilingual individuals who do not, however, let their anglo-franco roots pass into nothingness - they teach French and English to their children along with a couple more foreign languages. "And that should be done, importantly, from a very young age" Gabrielle`s eldest daughter echoes her mother with conviction. "A child`s brain is like a sponge: soak a sponge in water and observe how fast it gets absorbed. With age, it may come out as a bit of a challenge to learn a foreign language, especially if you are not accustomed to the process. Had my parents not assumed the shared responsibilty of teaching me and my siblings French and Portuguese at an early stage, who knows whether I would speak these as fluently and correctly as I do today. I could well have lost at least either of them".

Sharing details about her career path, Gabrielle admits to having been rather short of good counsellors as she was beginning her career as a translator. "I was extremely motivated to translate, you know. However, it was a rare chance to come across a teacher who would enthusiastically initiate you into the very nuances of the job. Naturally, it is up to you to go and pore over dictionaries in search of a good equivalent. But I am convinced that checking up whether the equivalent a student has found is not a mess must be a teacher`s priority. And since I fell into a ditch with lame equivalents on multiple occasions when I was younger, I now see to it that a student who, I can tell, is very eager about the subject and feels language receives valuable feedback from me" Madam Gabrielle concludes. As far as my own experience is concerned, that is not a position shared by all teachers.

Gabrielle Delisle has long-term experience of working both as a translator and, occasionally, interpreter. And when she was younger, she would never have imagined she would want to dedicate a great chunk of her working time to teaching at university. However, as years went by, she was getting more and more frustrated with the younger generation of translators, fresh out of university, who lacked the technique and the soft skills that make a good translator. "At some point, I decided that I could reset my priorities and dedicate at least some portion of my time to teaching translation to youngsters. I was later surprised that I got so much into the process and was so excited to reap the results of my work at university that I considerably cut down on my work at Novartis and plunged into education" Madam Gabrielle confesses. "However, it is strongly believed by me that a good teacher should also stay abreast of the professional realities of a translation-related job to be able to share them with future translators while they are still at university. That is why I took a firm decision that my working time should fall into two: translating and teaching translation" she explains.

Some of Gabrielle Delisle`s university colleagues find her even "intimidating" at times. "But that has nothing to do with her personality", shares one of her fellow teachers, herself a translator in her early fifties. "She is a fabulous person, a nice sport, and an affectionate mother, for all I know. I happen to know her closely and I can tell you that she would always sacrifice her up-coming promising projects to baby-sitting for her grandchildren when they were sick. However, it is her approach to knowledge and methodology that is intimidating. In a good way, though" she laughs. "Funnily enough, students, I mean those who are really passionate about her subject and do not just take it because it is a prerequisite or something, love her and often stay after class to get some straight tip from her, which she gladly gives. Gabrielle is someone who needs to see a vivid interest in her domain in her students` eyes to let her light-hearted side show. And once it shows, trust me, she is not someone who will be a scrooge in sharing her knowledge with others".

Honestly, that is what I call a teacher in her own right and a self-accomplished broad-minded individual.

Attribution: The real people that inspired the characters presented in this profile are not associated with such institutions as the University of Montreal and Novartis. The characters were artificially put into a contemporary frame wherein the setting is Montreal, Québec. That was done to adjust the narrative to the realities that would be comprehensible specifically for the Canadian reader as well as to spare them any side, redundant information related to the prototypes and make the narrative more vivid and up-to-date .

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