I am upset when asked by Canadians who do not speak French, “Do you speak the real French?” They usually add: “I went to Montréal and I could not understand a thing.”
“Do you speak French?” I ask.
“Yes, I took three courses at university, 35 years ago.”
I wish these people would realize how proud I am of ma langue maternelle (my mother tongue.) I walk away and wonder how they would feel if I asked them: “Do you speak the real English?”
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When I was not quite six years old, my mother brought me to the parlour of the Convent Notre-Dame du St. Rosaire where I was to be educated. The convent, a private boarding school, was run by a group of nuns specializing in educating girls. At the beginning of the 20th century, convents set up all over the Province of Québec were recognized as the best educational institutions available to French-Canadian girls. If you were a student at a Convent des Dames de la Congrégation, you were special, or so we were told.
On the first day of school, I was handed a French grammar book, a French dictionary, and a French composition book. For the next 11 years, these educated women taught me to respect and value my language: French. They also instilled in me an understanding of the necessity of learning a second language. Courses of English were added into the curriculum after the sixth grade. Today, I am a proud Canadian who speaks both official languages.
My daughter, Francine, taught French in the Immersion School Program offered in Nanaimo; now she is an administrator. She has dedicated her life to teaching French to children of Anglophone families. Yet, upon returning from France, she was asked by an English-only-speaking person: “Did you have trouble being understood while you were in France?”
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Today, the French spoken in Québec differs in pronunciation, expressions, vocabulary, and grammatical usage from the French spoken in France. Just as the accent and the expressions used in English spoken in England varies from the English spoken in Australia, Asia, Africa, the U.S., and Canada, but it is the same language. I would never think of asking an English-speaking person “Do you speak the real English?”—so how is it that some Anglophones without hesitation ask me “Do you speak the real French?” I tend to think it is due to the lack of respect and understanding of the status of French as one of the two official languages of Canada. In The Story of French, the journalist-authors, Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, write: “Real French, the language spoken by 175 million people across the planet is alive and kicking and readily adapting to different political, cultural, and religious contexts. Under the influence of local regionalisms . . . and other languages such as English[,] . . . French speakers communicate in their own versions of French, not the stiff parlance taught in schools.”
When I travel in France, I can, most of the time, figure out which part of the Francophonie a speaker comes from through his or her accent. Just as I can, most of the time, guess if an English-speaking person comes from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., or Canada. We all have accents, even though we’d like to believe that everyone except us does. I much prefer the accent I hear as I land at Heathrow Airport than the one I hear in Canada. And I am sure that the accent heard as you land in Paris sounds very romantic to English ears. So let’s agree that accents are inherent to any spoken language, and that they do not change meanings to the point of complete incomprehension. There might be a need to get used to new accents, different expressions, and colloquialisms, but, as far as I am concerned, not understanding a person speaking in his or her maternal language is a reflection on the listener’s lack of knowledge and interest in the language, not the speaker’s inability to speak it.
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Historically, the King’s French was adopted by the colons (French settlers) who came to New France, what is now Québec, from different regions of France, and who brought with them their own patois (local dialect). Here are two examples of patois words with their modern versions: moé (moi)= me, and la boucane (la fumée) = smoke. Some aboriginal words pertaining to the local reality have also been integrated into the French language of the time such as ataka (canneberge)= cranberry, blé d’inde = corn. Maritime terms as well have entered everyday French as a result of the mode of transport used on rivers, and lakes: the main arteries of the colony include embarquer and débarquer, instead of the verbs, “monter” and “descendre” that are used to describe the action of getting in and out of an automobile. These archaic words still permeate everyday parlance of the people of Québec.
The British conquest of 1763 isolated the colons from their mother country, and the cultural exchange between Québec and France was suspended for many years. Additionally, the presence of the British was responsible for the intrusion of English vocabulary into the French vernacular in a way that could be considered a linguistic assault. Such are the results of any cultural colonization. During the 20th century, English became the working language for white-collar workers in Montréal. From my own experience, by the 1940s, to work in an office, French-Canadians needed to know some English. All of these conditions participated in shaping the French spoken in the conquered colony.
In the 1960s, during the Québec Révolution Tranquille (Quiet Revolution), a great effort was made to improve the colloquial French used by Québec’s working class. An attitude of elitism and snobbery developed around certain pronunciations and expressions. Today, linguists consider that view to be invalid. In the 1960s, the term, “joual,” denounced by some and glorified by others, was attributed to the French spoken by the blue-collar class in Montréal. This manner of speaking would be comparable to the “cockney” spoken in London, England. Michel Tremblay, the great Québécois dramatist, used “joual” in the play, Les Belles-Soeurs, to bring attention to the creative language of a significant element of Montréal’s population. By dramatically resorting to the workingmen dialect, he affirms the value of their social and cultural milieu. In one scene, a character in his play, Angéline Sauvé, says:
“C’est facile de juger le monde. C’est facile de juger le monde mais y faut connaître les deux côtés d’la médaille! Le monde que j’ai rencontré dans c’te club-là, c’est mes meilleures amis! Y’a personne qui a été fin comme ça avec moé avant!”
“It’s easy to judge people. It’s easy to judge people but you’d need to know both sides of the coin! The people I meet in that club, they’re my best friends! Nobody’s so nice to me before!”
In the early 1970s, Les Belles-Soeurs was presented in Paris with huge success. Now, Belles-Soeurs, a musical that has been a smash hit in Québec this season, has its eyes set on performing to the rest of Canada in an English version. In an article published in Le Devoir, Jacques Ferron, the dramatist-journalist, referring to Michel Tremblay wrote that “[t]he [working class] people speak “joual,” but do not read it; the writer speaks French but . . . [writes] “joual.” It is also essential to point out that Tremblay uses “joual” as a dramatist’s device, but he typically speaks standard French.
Jacques Brault, professor at the Université de Montréal, wrote “[t]he French spoken here [Québec] is not reducible to ‘joual,’ far from it.” Although, since the late 1970s, “joual” has not been prominent within the language of the majority of educated Québécois, it must be pointed out that it is still heard and spoken in some parts of the Province. However, the Francophones of Canada are very proud of the full range of their language and are willing to defend it from attacks and safeguard it from dismissal. The existence of this island of French culture, which is surrounded by an ocean of English and American cultures, continues to be in an imminent threat of extinction if not protected. Most Francophones in Québec believe that their maternal tongue represents who they are, their souls, their identities, their history, and their defiance of the geographical reality. The modern French language spoken in Québec is respected all over the world, especially by people who have an understanding of the evolution of the language. The fact that French is still spoken in Québec is not only remarkable, but its historical persistence and value is acknowledged and celebrated.
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Nadeau and Barlow write that the French regard their language as an institution; just as they view their public entities and foundations i.e. legal system and constitution. They explain that “The French . . . see their language—as fixed and immovable part of the state apparatus.” While the British tend to understate their institutions and they give as examples the facts that “the British constitution is unwritten and their legal system is not codified into a whole.” Furthermore, they argue that although “the English language has rules (and many exceptions) the English speakers downplay their importance, while the French acknowledge the greatness of their institutions and accept “their language with all its rules.” These cultural differences between English and French speakers and how they relate to their institutions and their languages help me to understand how some English speakers have difficulty to understand how the question “do you speak the real French” is so offensive to French Canadian speakers who consider the French language as an institution with which they identify. Their language is part of their personality and it validates their national pride.
Often when I arrive at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, what do I hear?
“Ah, you are Québécois! We love your accent!”