Eighteen Epiphanies from My First French Conference

Madhav Malhotra
7 min readJun 11, 2022

My stomach felt upset as I raised my hand, looked at the 15 Francophones around me, and started slowly stuttering some broken French. 😶

This was very common at Santé Mentale au Sommet — a French conference about mental health that I was lucky enough to attend! I had the privilege of planning ways to improve mental health in Montreal with 50 francophones from across Canada.

(Source: jack.org)

The only problem was — I’d never spoken French in a group 😮 Facing the challenges this caused taught me 18 things. Here they are, concisely:

1. Apply first, think later — I randomly applied after I got an email from jack.org, the nonprofit organising the event. I’m pretty sure I told them I wasn’t a native French speaker :D I never expected to hear back. But a few months later — I found some train tickets to Montreal in my email inbox.

2. Wait 2 more days before quitting— I practiced French every day for the conference. Then, disaster struck. For the first time in 2 years, I got COVID. Amidst fever fatigue, I wanted to forget about the event. But I told myself to wait 2 days before cancelling. And in that time, both my French and my fever got better 🎉 You don’t hear about that COVID side effect, huh? 😁

3. Perceived risk > actual risk — The reason I was practicing French every day was because of nightmares of not understanding Québecois accents. But even as I got on the train, I could understand every French announcement! Even the one about the train being delayed because a cement block fell on the track 😮

The views were nice at least :D

4. Similarly, when I got there, I could half understand everything. Even when I checked into a hotel for the first time, half understood what the staff told me, and hoped the other half wasn’t anything important 😅 Also, most people speak English in Montreal anyways, so there was a fair amount of ‘Franglish’ going on.

5. Start with a small step. But start now — On the first day of the event, people started congregating in groups. Feeling nervous talking in French, I stuck to my own table. And with every passing minute, it was more and more odd to suddenly switch tables. What was the solution out of this dilemma???

6. Well, when I was fed up of not doing the thing I know would help me grow, I forced myself to get started. I started by talking to staff (who I suppose were there to help). Half understood them. So I talked to other students one-on-one. Half understood them. So I talked to speakers after their talks. Half understood them. So I started talking in front of groups. And by the end of the day, I was the first person to raise my hand for any question 😤

Adventures before the second day of the conference.

7. The next day, a speakers, Chúk Odenigbo, talked about times he was the only black francophone around white anglophones. So after his talk, I forced myself to ask him a personal question: “I’m the only Indian male in this room and 80% of people here are white females. I feel pretty uncomfortable. How do you not get bothered by being different???”

8. I kept repeating his answer to myself for the rest of the conference. He said: because you’re different, you have something new to offer people. In every conversation, it’s like your differences are a gift. This is what I was saying in my head every time I was the first person to raise my hand, despite my broken French 🙌

9. Beeline out of the box — Another speaker, Bavon Kirenga, talked about his experiences as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. This is SUCH an important, neglected event in world history. I didn’t expect to learn about history at a mental health conference. But I wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. As soon as he was done speaking, I made a beeline to interview him one-on-one as if I were a historical journalist.

Bavon Kirenga (Source: Loyola High School)

10. Say back what you hear — One-on-one, he told me the most inspirational details that he didn’t mention on stage. But I had to ask personal questions. Like: “Which people were important in helping you get here?” And I focused on saying back the emotions and motivations he mentioned.

11. Bavon told me how his parents and brothers had been shot and killed. And how he and his sisters were shot, but survived. He told me he was a rebellious teenager after that, hanging out with all the wrong kids, not knowing what future he could move towards. 😢 But some social workers kept checking in on him. Asking him who he was, how he was, what he was aiming for.

12. He said these social workers were the first people to ever encourage him or tell him he was capable of more. Until then, he just hadn’t thought that he was capable of something greater. But the social workers got him to get out of the wrong environments. And as he started working, he started getting more and more requests to talk about his experiences — which he didn’t even realise COULD inspire. Over time, speaking about the Rwandan genocide became his full time job.

13. And now, he’s trying to reach other at-risk youth and believe in them more than they can believe in themselves. ❤️ His life’s work is to pass on just a few words of encouragement that could change someone’s life. I fully felt connected with him in this goal. And I could SEE that he wasn’t just talking about it, he was ACTING on it.

14. At the same time, he wishes he could find those social workers from his childhood again. He wishes he could show them the way he turned his life around. He wishes he could let them know the impact their work had. And yet, sometimes we never see the impact of the help we’ve given others.

15. After the talk with Bavon, I suddenly felt this belonging with everyone at the conference. When someone shared a new idea for me to learn. When someone reaffirmed an idea I’d had. I could see everyone working towards the same goal as me, so I felt like I belonged. I’ve gotten goosebumps thinking about it on three separate occasions now 😮

16. In the evening after the conference, I climbed a rocky hill that overlooked the city with my friend, Tobias. I stopped to ponder about everything. Ex: Count the rings in trees, estimate the slope of a steep hill, throw helicopter seeds from maple trees in the air to watch them twirl, look at the sunlight filtering from behind some leaves under a tree, watch the waves come and go on a pond with wind, watch refractions of fish split about here there and everywhere.

17. I thought about how other humans before me have seen this sight and felt this emotion. In the exact spots I was wandering, so had indigenous tribespeople and European colonists. I felt connected with them. 👭

18. And I thought about how every moment, I’m witnessing so much complexity that we’d never be able to model it perfectly with all the physics / computational simulations in the world. Not the wind causing waves on the pond, not the glimmer of the sun in the water, not the leaves fluttering amidst the howling wind. I felt curious, happy, at peace, and appreciative of my environment.

And to think none of this would’ve been possible if I’d let my French fears or my post-COVID fever stop me 😶

This article isn’t at all sponsored, but thank you to jack.org for giving me the chance to learn these lessons. Thank you especially to:

  • Nedda (my fellow anglophone during the event),
  • Macha (the boss lady running everything),
  • Caroline (the person with the softest voice I’ve ever heard),
  • Patrice (the most enthusiastic COVID tester in the world),
  • Emily (someone who just LIVES the word ‘friendly’ in every moment),
  • and Ezekiel (the loudest and most extroverted person I’ve ever met)

for their friendliness during the event and all their help in setting it up 🙏