Saturday, February 23, 2013

When it sucks to speak French

News this week of the incomparable Office de la Langue Francaise citing an Italian restaurant for having too many 'pastas' on their menu, and a CBC poll finding that more than one quarter of anglos don't feel welcome in Quebec. Well, here's my two cents and it can be summed up in seven words:

It sucks to speak French in Montreal. 

I was born and have lived my whole life in Montreal. I learned French in elementary and high-school. When so many of my friends were leaving the province I chose to stay. I went to graduate school in Geneva, in part to improve my French. I have made my home here, and raised a family of four children here. I make my living here. I speak French quite fluently. I write French quite well too. I estimate that between and 20 and 30 per cent of my day is spent communicating in French. When I go to court (for business reasons) I insist on testifying in French. In fact, I enjoy speaking and writing in French. The problem is that speaking French in Montreal is often an experience that sucks, and that’s why more people don’t do it, or resent making the effort. It sucks for a number of reasons.

The first reason is common sense psychology. People hate being forced to do anything. The natural tendency is resistance, regardless of what it is. This rule applies to most things, especially something as personal as what language you must communicate in. The laws associated with discouraging the use of languages other than French mainly serves to make non-Francophones feel attacked and instinctively resist. 

The second reason is, of course, political. Speaking French has become a political act. For many it represents political aspirations of self-determination. For me, and I suspect many like me, the political undertones have the effect of draining the act of speaking French of its inherent beauty and enjoyment. Speaking French does not and should not have to be a political act.

The third reason is snobbery. The moment an Anglophone speaks French to a bilingual Francophone who recognizes their accent, they respond in English. I’m not sure this is done out of courtesy, or with good intentions. I think it’s most often done to show superiority ie. that they speak English better than you can speak French. My sense is that for some reason Francophones have a bizarre intolerance for grammatical error and poor accents. It’s as if it grates on their nerves. I wish they would learn from Anglophones to accept the occasional mangling of their language. It’s one of the reasons people gravitate to speaking English. It’s a welcoming, open, non-judgmental, forgiving language. English speakers naturally give non-native speakers a wide berth to communicate in English. It’s part of the attraction of speaking English.

My suggestion to the government and to Francophone Quebeckers is simple; don’t make it suck to speak French in Montreal. Highlight all the positives about the language, its inherent beauty, its rich cultural heritage, how fun it can be to learn, read, speak and write. Francophones should encourage people to speak French at every opportunity, with their neighbours, in the street, when they go shopping, or take public transportation. They should let Anglophones speak, even making mistakes, and when spoken to in French only answer in French. Instead of paying language cops to enforce discouraging laws the government should spend money on trumpeting these sorts of positive messages in ads, that speaking French is a point of great pride for Montrealers, and not just as Quebeckers, but as Canadians.


Spamfighter said...

"My sense is that for some reason Francophones have a bizarre intolerance for grammatical error and poor accents. "

Uhm, you HAVE heard the Quebecoise jouyal accent, right? Many people speaking French in Quebec make an abysmal mess of a lovely language.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

An interesting point. It's why I wrote "bizarre". I wonder if it has something to do with an inferiority complex, the subconscious need to compensate for not speaking 'real' french.

JD said...

Most French speakers of English imagine their command of the language is better than it actually is. Remember Stephane Dion, who could not understand simple questions addressed to him in press conferences.

JD said...

Too often, French people imagine their command of English is better than it is.