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Native French speaker Letang talks being bilingual

The Penguins are holding a French Language Night tonight against Montreal

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Even before Kris Letang moved from Montreal to Pittsburgh to play for the Penguins, the native French speaker was already hard at work learning English.

During his last two seasons of junior hockey with the Val-d'Or Foreurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Letang took private English lessons with a tutor three times a week. 

There were a couple of reasons for that. The first one is due to the bilingual nature of Team Canada, as Letang represented his country at the 2006 and '07 World Junior Championship and won gold both years. He also had the added responsibility of serving as captain the second year.

"With Team Canada, you had to speak English because of all the guys from across the country," Letang explained. "And in junior, because we had guys from the east coast of Canada, we had Americans, we had Europeans. The coach had to speak English. So that was kind of like the first steps."

And the second reason is because of the length of the tournament - which starts with a selection camp in early December and goes until early January - Letang had to take time off of secondary school both years.  

"I was never there, so I took private English," he said.

But despite Letang's preparation, when he came to Pittsburgh for training camp, he still had quite the learning curve.

"I knew English a little bit, but I was not speaking it well," Letang said. "I was not comfortable with any of it. I would say the first two or three years I was not that comfortable."

But Letang was plenty motivated to get a handle on it quickly. 

"You're in an environment where guys are chirping you and they're making fun of you, so you kind of try to learn quick and fast," he said with a laugh.

When Letang first arrived, he was fortunate enough to have fellow French-Canadians Pascal Dupuis, Marc-Andre Fleury and Max Talbot already in the organization. 

They took him under their wing to help him get acclimated, with Fleury even housing Letang for a pair of training camps while he looked for a place of his own.

"I was just really quiet, scared to talk," Letang said. "But coming in, I think Pascal, Flower, Max -they helped me a lot to get into it. They talked to me, gave me some tips."

However, looking back on it, the now 32-year-old Letang feels that what helped him the most when learning English was just being immersed in it.

"Just to be exposed to it every single day was huge," he said. "Like daily stuff - you go get groceries, you watch TV, movies, shopping. Everything was new, so the fact that I was exposed to it helped me."

Unlike some of his other teammates who used TV shows and movies as a tool for learning English - Evgeni Malkin was a fan of "Transformers," for example - Letang doesn't remember any of them as being particularly helpful to him (though he does love the film "The Game," starring Michael Douglas). 

Letang does wish that he had been able to have access to a service like Duolingo - which allows users to learn languages for free through their website and/or mobile app - and that he had started studying English earlier in school.

"I wish growing up, being bilingual or trilingual was something that schools focused on more," Letang said. "I feel like all through elementary school and high school even, we didn't work enough on our English. Especially since it's the universal language. When people all over the world communicate, that's what they use. So I think they should increase the focus of it in schools."

Right now, that is a focus for Letang's 7-year-old son Alex, who is bilingual - speaking French at home with his parents and baby sister Victoria and speaking English at his school in Pittsburgh.

At the 2020 All-Star festivities in St. Louis on Jan. 24 and 25, Alex stole the show by conducting interviews throughout the weekend, speaking perfect English to reporters and transitioning seamlessly into French when he wanted to talk to his dad. He also did some interviews in French with the French-language stations.

Though when the family returns to Montreal for the offseason, they will speak only French. And interestingly enough, it's somewhat of an adjustment for Letang to transition back into French from English.

"The tough part, I think, is when I go home for the summer and go back to speaking completely in French," he said. "I'm looking for my words the first two weeks. Even if I speak it at home, sometimes I use English a little bit. But when I go back to Montreal, sometimes I'm looking for words."

At the end of the day, Letang had to become bilingual by necessity - but it's something he's proud of.

"It's pretty cool," he said.

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