Thursday, October 22, 2015

Speaking French with an anglophone accent in Montréal


When I was in my early twenties, I began learning French with the idea of using it in different countries as a vehicular language. Later on, I had the idea of continuing to use it in my daily life and having been born and grew up in the United States, I thought that moving to Québec and establishing myself in a city like Montréal would be perfect.

So I moved to Montréal. I had a friend from my French conversation group in Minneapolis who was from St-Bruno, on the rive-sud of Montréal. She was having problems with her life in the states and moved back to Québec and came to pick me up at the airport. I stayed with her and her roommate for two weeks until I found a place of my own. Right away, she was insistent that we speak in English because she didn’t want to lose the English that she worked so hard to acquire.

This annoyed me of course, because my main goal, besides eventually getting myself established in Québec society and finding a job, was to speak French as often as possible, if not all time. Sort of like how I used to speak in English all the time. I soon discovered that this would not be possible, not only because of my previous work experience as a writer, who by default, will always write a little better in English, because of my formation in an Anglophone environment, but also because the pull of English is so strong. Everyone wants to speak it because it’s oh-so-international.

I can accept that my written French and accent will never be as good as my English, but that doesn’t deter me from wanting to use it as often as possible. Then one fine day, I’ll be able to think and dream in French (like all the non-Anglophones living in the states claim to do in English) and to conceive thoughts and concepts in this language, which will open doors in my mind that one single language (English) cannot. I believe that every language is a perspective on the world which allows different ideas to come forth. No one language can be a vessel for all human mental conception, no matter how versatile people believe it to be.

It goes without saying that this created a certain friction between my friend and myself. She told me that she cared about Québec and that her voting penchants leaned towards sovereignty, however she maintained this very strange attitude about English. It wasn’t enough to speak it fluently. If she forgot a word, or didn’t know this or that expression, it was the most horrible thing imaginable and she would say—“See! I am losing my English and I worked so hard to acquire it!”

Okay, I can understand that. I was always in an uphill battle trying to acquire French in a small village in francophone Africa, or globalized urban France or living in the United States. However, I know that if I weren’t living in an area where I wasn’t speaking it every day, it would be normal to sometimes forget words. You just need to make an effort to keep it. For me, this included attending a conversation group every week, listening to films in French and trying to read books in French, new vocabulary here and there.

The rest of my life was in English, mostly because I didn’t have the choice because among Anglophones, the vast majority speaks only English. Furthermore, if the linguistic environment is anglophone, one just doesn’t run around expecting people to speak in another language. In Québec, it seems that people want to bring their individual practicing of English into public life. Speaking in French is not enough. When they sense an opportunity to practice their English, they jump at it, even if the other person wants to practice French.

I even had people say to me that it was unfair that we speak French all the time and to insist on it continually was just me being selfish. I was told that we needed to speak English at least 50% of the time so that we can both benefit from one another. They say this to me on Québec soil. Do they not realize that they would not have anyone telling them outside of Québec—“Okay, you need to speak French with me at least some of the time because you need to help me practice if I am expected to help you practice.” Outside of Québec, people just go about their business, in English. And if you’re goal is to improve your English, you will benefit from that.

Nevertheless, people don’t do that in Québec, or at least they don’t in Montréal. I was told to leave Montréal if I wanted to speak “French only”. First of all, even if I did that, there is hardly any place in Québec where it actually is French only. You go to Estrie, there is an Anglophone university and plenty of people ready and willing to speak English when they hear your accent. You go to Québec City, and while it’s true that there are some who don’t speak English (they usually say it with enormous shame), it’s hardly “French only” in Québec City. The Outaouais is pretty bilingual. Gaspésie is close to the anglophone Maritimes. It’s rare to be forced to use French.

Second of all, the region of Montréal is half of Québec’s population. If the metropolitan region is bilingualized (read: anglicized), then what other effect could that have on the rest of Québec other than the same thing? Furthermore, why should a people’s largest city have to be institutionally bilingual? Bilingualism should be a personal choice and not be a requirement to perform any and all jobs in Québec. In Oslo, most people have a very good grasp on English, though there is no push to make the city institutionally bilingual.

One might say that there is no historical Anglophone community in Norway, which is why Montréal must be bilingual. What about Sudbury and Moncton? Haven’t these cities had historical francophone communities? In the real world (and not some Canadian government bilingualism statistic), despite substantial francophone minorities, don’t these cities function primarily in English? Isn’t Ottawa supposed to be bilingual? The capital of Canada is really an anglophone city with a few bilingual francophones scattered here and there. When you speak in French in the street or in shops, you get told to go to Québec if you want to speak French.

Anyway, getting back to Montréal, I was also unprepared for how anglicized the downtown area is. This seems mostly due to those two anglophone universities and the West Island population. I didn’t realize that the West Island was not at all bilingual, but full of unilingual Anglophones. I remember going to the swimming pool at the YMCA on Peel and Maisonneuve and only the most basic of services were in French. Just try discussing anything with them beyond “hello” (such as not having the most current address on your driver’s license or the pool being closed) and they answer you in English. You ask them to respond in French, they refuse. You persist and they raise their voice and argue with you. One time, there was an immigrant from Haiti or francophone Africa, who refused to speak to me in French. I can imagine because he was so enamored with English pop culture and consequently would only speak that, however, people like him would never admit it. Finally, they found a middle aged Quebecer lady (the only one working there) to pretty much tell me to leave, though at least she did it in French.

Now, imagine someone with my accent asking to be served in French. To be spoken to in French. Do you think anyone would actually do it? I don’t know which is worse, the “old stock” Anglophones or the first or second generation immigrant people who, despite la loi 101, persist in speaking English and only English, even if their French is better. Who would have thought language was so complicated? Why don’t Anglophones and Allophones take more of an interest in Québec and in French? Why are they so centered on their own little experience? Why don’t they open themselves up to French? Why do they close off the exterior world from themselves?

More importantly, why are Francophones, especially those in Montréal, not at ease with their language in the same way that Anglophones are? I’m pretty sure I know why, but do you?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What am I doing in Québec anyway?


I’ll start out by saying that I know that I will never be from Québec in the way that the Québec people are, at least not entirely. Of course it can be said that I am a “Quebecer” by adoption, but even saying that is something that just about everyone I meet has a lot of trouble accepting.

What I mean is that nobody is going to tell someone of Haitian, Algerian or Mexican descent that they are not Québécois. Though with me, from the point of view of others, I am and will always be American. I do think it is possible to become a Quebecer when you’re not born and raised here. However, I will never be able to claim the status of “old stock” or native Quebecer or any of the other politically charged (and sometimes pejorative) terms like “pure laine” or “de souche”, or my favorite “trempé dans le sirop d’érable” which are often used to insult Quebecers by accusing them of the old cliché that they are closed off from society or racist or whatever.

I hesitate to use the world “Québécois” in English because when the French term is used in English, it often becomes a loaded term, implying that if you’re “Québécois” you are closed off from the world, living in a bubble, hate English-speaking people and are xenophobic. However, the word “Quebecer” sounds ridiculous and I almost never hear it used. I don’t think words like “Quebecan” exist, but that I like better. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll just use the word I know does exist: Quebecer.

I was born in a small town in the United States. I suppose it was around the end of my teens when I started to become more aware of my family’s ancestral and ethnic origins, and hence, my own. I remember speaking a little French with my maternal grandmother on her death bed as well as bits of the prayers she learned as a child, the second of sixteen children.

I guess I had a pretty typical North American upbringing. After high school, I moved to ‘‘the cities” of Minneapolis/Saint Paul to attend university. I wasn’t really focussed in those years on having a specific plan for the future. I wasn’t sure in what area I wanted to study. I had a vague idea to do something in writing because of some encouragement on the part of a former teacher when I was a few years younger. When I went to university, I didn’t yet speak French. I took two years of high school French, mostly because I was trying to go against the current of taking Spanish (because everyone thought it was more useful—however almost nobody left the Spanish classes being able to communicate in Spanish). I eventually learned to speak Spanish too, but that’s another subject.

Anyway, in those years, I had those typical, youthful romantic ideas of backpacking through Europe. I’m sure you all know what I mean—living out a sort of bohemian cliché popularized in Lost Generation novels from 1920s Paris as well as going from country to country and superficially seeing them. At twenty years old, I didn’t however have the slightest idea that doing that kind of a trip had zero originality. Today, I can see that. The idea of getting heavily into debt so that one could pass a few months gallivanting off in Europe seems to come from some sort of shared cultural reference coming from TV, books and movies. I had no idea that I would be meeting dozens of people just like me in the youth hostels, the bars, buses, trains, on the street… It seemed that almost everyone spoke English and so many things were consistent with American popular culture. In the end, that experience made me realize that globalization wasn’t really the glamorous idea that I had as a teenager, but more of a tendency making everything the same and destroying diversity. From my point of view, that doesn’t seem to be a recipe for a better world. Furthermore, I was also ashamed of the fact that I could only speak in English.

After that, I decided to integrate studying French into my university schedule. I told myself that I was going to learn French in order to go spend a few years in francophone Africa. That was mostly because I wanted to emphasize the fact to myself and to others that French was spoken in many other places besides France and was indeed a useful language (in contrast to the supposed moral high ground the Spanish students thought they had). I then began to take up several cultural references from the rest of the francophonie, moving beyond the predictable formula about café life in Paris à la Jean-Paul Sartre.

Essentially, this is where my interest in French started to take off—in the fact that I could use it in several places around the world. Places as different as Europe, Islamic and Christian Africa, voodoo in Benin (or Haiti), Pacific islands or even something culturally close to where I grew up like Québec. This then brought me to Mauritania in 2004.

I spent two years there as a Peace Corps volunteer in an isolated village along the Senegal River. The people spoke Wolof and Hassaniya (a Saharan variant of Arabic) as well as French (though not everyone spoke French, as not everyone went to school, furthermore, there were two educational systems with two languages in Mauritania). After that, I worked in Lyon for a year. It was then that I began to think seriously about going to live in Québec and continuing to use French on a daily basis. I wanted to live in French in North America. So, I came to Québec in 2009 with the idea of trying to contribute something to a unique society. In this globalized era that we live in, I wanted to try to live a little differently.

So, why did I come to Québec? In short, and you may find this to be an outlandish statement, I don’t think that the United States (or Canada) really has much of a culture anymore. Yes, I know that nobody wants to hear that and then angrily go on about the enormous differences between the different regions in the United States or even Canada. Okay, maybe it was truer in the past. Today, however, the mass “culture” of the big centers like New York and Los Angeles have spread their influence all over the continent (and beyond). These days, whether people want to admit it or not, we only have the mass culture, the one that carries the same cultural references from one ocean to another. And nobody wants to acknowledge that.

I had a good life before. But I wanted to live in a different way among a people who were creating something of and for themselves, instead of merely importing something, tangible and intangible, from a far off city. Nevertheless, it became clearer and clearer how the mass cultural steamroller was busy making everything the same. Of course Québec has not been spared. For better or for worse, we are living in the mass culture as well. Nevertheless, here we have the French language and because of that, we have our own institutions and our own cultural references. We are pushed towards creation in this language, which ends up being something of and for ourselves.

This favors a local cultural output providing us with the values, principles and world vision that belongs to us. Of course, all this can be shared by others, whether they be Québec’s historic Anglophone minority or new comers. It only calls for integration into Québec’s society. A society that is distinctly American but unlike anywhere else. It is ours. The Québec nation has created something truly unique. A springboard towards further creative construction and expression that deserves to be protected.

Anyway, once I got here, I was soon disappointed. Every single day I was deeply struck about how everyone spoke to me in English in Montréal. Even though my French is quite good, with a large vocabulary and hardly making any mistakes, my accent made everyone switch to English (if they weren’t already addressing me in English right off the bat). I found it unbelievable the extent some people idolized the English language, found French to be lacking it its capacity to express “modern” ideas and just wanted to speak English all the time. Usually because they wanted to practice speaking it or they had some weird personal conviction for using English when it wasn’t necessary.

I would have never guessed how deep certain people’s inferiority complex goes regarding the English language in Québec. Many evaluate their own self-worth and intelligence by how well they speak English. They don’t recognize the achievements of the Québec nation and are pretty docile, passively accepting the mass culture. They are drowning, without realizing it, in the illusion that they can survive as a people by doing nothing, by just going with the mass culture flow.

Maybe some people want to see Québec as a quaint tourist curiosity. However, for those who see it differently, who see that Québec is special, the old national questions rears its bothersome head. Would Québec remain distinct and with a potential for local output on North American soil by being assimilated in the popular mass culture?

You can’t just be bilingual and expect everything to be hunky dory. The national problem goes deeper than that. You can’t have your cake and eat it to.