Just in case I haven’t outright stated it here before, and if there are any of you who don’t know this yet, I was born in Ottawa and grew up here and, although I left for my two degrees and to live in Toronto for a year (!!!), I have now lived back in Ottawa for about 16 years.
And yet, it took a trip to Quebec City over the May long weekend to make me realize just what a politically charged environment I’ve been accustomed to when it comes to language.
Ottawa loves to pride itself on being bilingual. It is very bilingual. But man is there some politics around that bilingualism. Some will think I mean official, high-level politics and there is some of that, for sure. This is where I’m tempted to dive into my personal political views but I’m curbing myself and I won’t so there’s your gift for today!
Back to the politics of language and down to low-level, one-on-one issues.
I spent our entire weekend in Quebec City talking French. I checked into the hotel in French, paid for our admission to various attractions, ordered our meals, etc. in French. The last time I spoke so much uninterrupted French was probably when I was in Paris right after finishing university.
Some of you might think that sounds strange. I mean, after all, I live in a bilingual city. Our family probably averages trips to Quebec (Gatineau; just across the river) once a week throughout the year. So why did it take a trip to Quebec City to have me fully immersed in speaking French?
Largely, it’s the politics of speaking French in the Ottawa region. Essentially, if you aren’t perfect, you don’t get to use it. People at my level of French – strong, able to function but missing some specific vocabulary words and not up on the latest trendy sayings – find that when we start to speak French to Francophones around the Nation’s Capital they will inevitably immediately switch to English. Seriously, this happens 95 per cent of the time.
Now some of you are probably thinking that’s nice of those people. They’re trying to do us a favour. And probably some of them have exactly those good intentions (I also know that some don’t but for the purposes of this post let’s not go there). But let me tell you the (unintended?) consequences of doing this:
(1) Our French will never get better. Never. If I string together a perfectly good sentence in French but then get stuck on one word (let’s say “lawnmower” – you see the kind of word I mean? One that could hang you up even if you knew the basics of the language quite well) and you immediately switch to English, I will never find out what “lawnmower” is in French (“tondeuse” by the way) and my overall French will never improve. So, if we’re struggling for a word, please just give it to us and let us move on.
(2) We lose confidence and don’t want to even start speaking in French because, to be honest, it feels like a bit of a slap in the face when you get one sentence into a conversation, and you might not have even made any mistakes, but the other person can tell from your accent that you’re not a Francophone and they switch over. It’s like saying “We both know your French isn’t good enough so let me put you out of your misery.”
(3) It’s full of assumptions. The assumption is, if my French is less-than-perfect, I must speak English. Maybe not. Maybe I speak Danish or German or Swahili. Maybe I happen to know French is my best option when communicating in Ottawa because I don’t speak any English. In fact, I’ve pretty much decided, from now on, if I start a conversation in French and the other person tries to switch me to English, I’m going to pretend I don’t speak it. At least that way I’ll get to practice my French.
Some of you are probably thinking “is this really a big deal?” and “get over it.” And, you know, as world issues go it isn’t. However, my husband said something that did make me realize it’s important. He referred to me as a “fluent” French speaker and I immediately denied that. Then I started thinking about it. I think, in Europe (he’s from the UK) I would be considered fluent. I have a feeling there if you can get through an entire day in another language and even have some banter (as opposed to just getting yourself shelter and food) you are considered fluent. But, having grown up here in Ottawa I put myself down. I do it because others put me down. But maybe I am fluent.
Maybe it’s time for me to decide I’m fluent and use my French more. Maybe it’s time for all of us to readjust our expectations and realize lots and lots and lots of people want to learn this beautiful language and, like it or not, it’s going to change the language. The current popularity of Early French Immersion (EFI) programs, in which children from English-speaking homes are immersed in French means there will be a huge chunk of the generation currently in school who will be fluent in French but with an accent nobody has ever heard before. Not quite Anglo but not Franco either. This was true for me when I was in Paris. People kept asking me if I was from Belgium or Switzerland. They knew I wasn’t speaking Parisien French but they couldn’t peg my accent.
Is that bad? No, it’s different and we’re all going to have to get used to it. Here the responsibility gets cast wider too. I’ve heard parents in the schoolyard complain about the accents of newly hired EFI teachers who themselves are products of the EFI system; originally from Anglophone families now teaching completely in French. Those complaints horrify me. I think (a) what do you think your child will sound like? That will be them, so you might as well embrace it (b) what better example could you want for your child than that their French can get so good they can grow up to teach it? and (c) would you dare say that about an English teacher with an Indian or Jamaican (or any – even French) accent? I think not. You’d be pegged as the biggest racist going.
So let’s all take a step back and say it’s good for people to learn new languages! It’s good for our brains and our cultures. When using their second language people won’t always know every current vocabulary word and expression. They might have accents. Big deal. Let’s support them, help them learn and let’s hope they help us learn.
It was so nice to spend a weekend using my second language and having people smile at me and be grateful to me for making the effort. Nobody switched to English on me all weekend. I just wish I didn’t have to drive five hours to get that experience…