Thursday, June 21, 2007

Language rant

I've lived here almost seven years now and I think I'm getting used to the Montreal rhythm. Cold winters, party summers. Check. But there's one thing that continues to perplex me. There is a huge political hot button up here that centers on language. The predominantly French speaking population and the minority English speaking population often butt heads. (Just a couple days ago, a city politician referred to the "ugly anglos" on the west side of town.) There are laws here preventing parents from choosing what language their children will be educated in. There are laws specifying the way to paint a sign (French must be twice the size of English if, you dare, print the English version). The law says French must be the language of the workplace. I don't understand the necessity of these laws, but of course I couldn't, being an immigrant and all (I'm supposed to assimilate, but can't ever be truly admitted to the club). After seven years though, I've decided that these measures, while enacted to "preserve the French culture", are really the result of fear. And maybe even the self centered idea that we can control the choices of our children and thus contour a political/cultural landscape that we will no longer be participants in (eventually). If I had children, I would most certainly enroll them in French school and speak English within the home. Why not give my kids bilingual skills when it is most easy to acquire them? Unfortunately, francophone parents do not have this luxury. If the maternal language of the parents is French, then the children must me taught in French as well.

When I went to register my business of teaching English, which I had decided to name "Let's Talk!", I was told I couldn't have a business name in English only, I had to register a French name as well. (Parlons!) I tried to reason with them, to no avail.

And here's the funny, backfiring part. The very fear of English somehow squelching the French culture only makes the youth crave anglicisms all the more. On the bus the other day, I heard a young man exclaim to his friend, "C'était full cool man." I suppose the culture police would find this abominable. I find it totally natural and a given. I don't get what people are worried about. Nobody forgets the language of their parents.

27 comments:

Lemuel said...

I am somewhat amazed at the French (in France in particular) who **legislate** vocabulary! This blows my mind. As much as I don't like it and resist it, I have to admit that language is a living organism that grows, forms, and mutates with the years and with cultural influences.

St. Dickeybird said...

And that's exactly why I'd have a hard time living there. Too much 'heritage' BS.

Snooze said...

Perhaps you are an immigrant, but most Canadians don't understand Quebec either! I actually agree with most of la loi 101. I think that people do and were forgetting French.

bardelf said...

Having traveled extensively in Quebec, spent a lot of time with very close friends in magnificent Quebec City, and once had a lover from Ottawa, I feel very connected to your blog today, torn.

When you study the complex history of Quebec, and the long struggles between the British and French on the North American continent, you begin to understand why Quebecers hold on so dearly to everything that helps identify them, including the language.

I do agree that at times it seems Canada goes out of its way to give Quebec special treatment. I do have a problem that Quebec rarely has road signs in English, while much of eastern Canada bends over backwards to place English and French on all signs.

I agree with you that it must be fear that causes Quebec to have such strict rules about their language. Again, though, when you really begin to research all that was done to New France, it makes it easier to understand this fear and distrust.

C'est la vie.

Chunks said...

Our country is supposed to be bilingual but the only fully bilingual province is New Brunswick, with all signs in both French and English. If Quebec wasn't so militant about the language, she wouldn't get such a bad rap, I think.

Devo said...

Such a hot issue. People in the West have a very hard time with the special treatment and excessive funding given to Quebec, a lot of which appears just to "bribe" them to stay in Canada. ??? Weird. Being a person who doesn't strongly identify with any heritage or culture other than Canadian, it is very hard to relate. The history does explain it to a point, but don't we all need to move on so to speak? Food for thought.

kev said...

I sense that same fear and suppression of minority language down here in the Southern US.

All trends point to Spanish-speaking people will predominate the States in a decade or so. I have never really thought about the politics of it all..but shouldn't bilinguality be the norm and embraced?

Jason said...

I think you are right when you say "fear." Remember Jacques Parizeau's famous speach?

madamerouge said...

good points in the post and comments

sadly, this country is still the "two solitudes"

Dantallion said...

I have no problem with 101 except for the education component you mention. In fact, I think 101 has been good for Quebec and for Canada. The real problem is politicians and media who continue to make an issue of this to score points. They perpertuate a "problem" that no longer exists. And people blindly follow because they seem most comfortable when thay have something to be outraged about. As with everything else, this mostly boils down to politics, power, greed, and spin.

David said...

I wish I was raised bilingual. While English is my parents' first language, they were raised in homes were Yiddish was fluently spoke. My parents rarely spoke it when I was growing up and consequently I know barely any Yiddish. It is very easy to lose the language of your parents.

David said...

"where" not "were"

~blush~

GayProf said...

I agree with David -- Language is often lost within a couple generations and replaced with an imposed language. New Mexico, after all, was a place where 90 percent of the population spoke Spanish not more than a century ago. Its history, though, went the opposite of Quebec. English is now the dominant language (though government services are all bilingual). Without concerted efforts to protect language, it can be lost.

But I also agree with you -- We live in the reality of a global economy. Being bilingual (or more!) will just be an asset.

And we won't even get into the craziness that dominates U.S. language policies in other parts of the nation...

Ed said...

At one time several years ago before Television and Radio and fast automobiles. Each part of the US had its own distinct flavor and accent. If only there was a way we could have held onto that. I can see why Quebec wants to hold on to its Old world charm.

Thom said...

Since I earn a living from speaking French, I find all these questions of language policy fascinating.

It's interesting that despite the efforts of the OQLF, everyday French in Quebec is riddled with words and expressions taken from English, as you pointed out. In my experience, that's far more common in Quebec than in France, where there is less pressure against the use of English - but also less of an everyday presence of English.

Kevin said...

What is it about the French that makes them so crazy like that? I remember reading once that in France, there are rules (laws?) that even go so far as to specify what kind of music is allowed to be played on the radio! A certain majority percentage must be by French artists. It just makes them look rather foolish to everyone else. BTW, not that American culture is the be all end all.

dr. mo said...

I can't help but find it interesting that the issue of power is not easily recognized. English speakers today seem to have a really hard time understanding why others feel their languages are under threat, just because their own language is the one that dominates today. I'm not saying that fear is necessarily a good thing, but I believe it is important to recognize that it is not unjustified fear.

And in the case of Quebec, as one of the comments mentioned, there is ample cause for French speakers to be defensive -I believe it was Lord Grey who as recently as the mid-1800s set out a deliberate policy to eradicate all traces of French language and culture in Canada. It may seem like a long time ago, but it is only since the 1980s that Quebec has started to protect French. And I can't help but notice that the rest of Canada is not as accommodating as it likes to think -I have been literally spat at in Toronto for asking someone (a City cop, at that) if they spoke French.

So, it may be annoying, but I think if we look at the big picture, it starts to seem less irrational.

Dantallion said...

Kevin: I'm not convinced that a lack of understanding of a culture or of the history of a situation is a good rationale for saying that people are "crazy like that". There's a lot of history there, and a lot of justifiable reasons for the positions that people have taken on both sides of the argument.

JP said...

You have to think of the 50's: all signs (shops, etc.) were in English. You wouldn't know of a difference between Toronto or Montreal, language wise. The assimilation was truly getting there. Could not be served in French etc.
The bill 101 really saved the language. Is that still needed? That's debatable.

When one says the only bilingual province is NB: I am not sure that a very good example: just look at the % of bilingual people in each province, look how healthy French is over there...
True, things have somehow improved (or slower deteriorated) since in NB (in terms of public services in French), but I am not sure it will be enough to save the French language in NB.

Lewis said...

I'm awfully afraid that our crazy world will forever be fighting about something. Language or otherwise. We love a good fight.

robert78 said...

Am I delusional in thinking that, one day, we will all have the same culture, all speak the same language, and all be the same race? The ultimate end to globalization is homogenization on every level, on a global scale. Sure it'll take a while, millenia perhaps, but it's inevitable, isn't it? Legislation, of all things, which tries to control the language people use is like trying to save a sand castle from the tide. Build as many walls as you want; in the end, the water always wins.

Maurice said...

I'm a francophone from New Brunswick now living in Nova Scotia, whose favorite city in Canada is Montreal. I was 7 or 8 the first time I visited Montreal -- this was in the early '70s -- and one of the most lasting impressions on me, even at the very young age, was how almost all the signs were in English. Yet I had been taught that, at that time -- it's no longer the case today -- Montreal was the second largest francophone city. So, I do wonder what the status of French would be in Montreal and Quebec had la Loi 101 not been introduced by the PQ in 1977.

Similarly, I was growing up just as the education reforms in New Brunswick were taking hold. The rate of assimilation was shocking in the 1960s because it was difficult to complete high school in French in many communities, including my hometown -- the now very bilingual Moncton whose mayor at the time was profoundly and aggressively anti-French.

So yes, "fear" may be a factor, mais pour chaque action il faut s'attendre à une réaction égale.

Okay, I'm stepping off the soap box now. :)

David in KC said...

I visited Montreal for the first time three years ago for the Gay/Lesbian Choral Festival. Besides enjoying the company of 5,000 glbt choristers, the city itself was a blast. It was sort of a hybrid travel experience, combining the unfamiliar French language/culture with the more familiar comforts of English.

I did notice, however, that a linguistic pet peeve of mine showed up there - the annoying response by young people to every question, comment, or compliment with "no problem." I expected something different from the Francophones - at least "pas de problem."

Oh well, I probably use catch phrases that annoy my 91 year old father.

dawn said...

Well, nobody forgets the curse words of the language of their parents...

Tank Montreal said...

Don't get me started. The language issue is insane here.
It's all about political power, not preservation of culture. Do you see the people in the streets squabbling about what language they're gonna speak to each other? No. We all get along just fine. It's the politicians who've created the hysteria; politicians who want to make their names as the founders of the Quebec Nation.
The fact is, it's great that we have two thriving cultures here, living side by side, each enhancing the other. We need to celebrate that fact. We need to stop the petty complaints about how many inches one language measures on the sign, compared to the other. It doesn't matter.
French will never die here. Especially not now. And no one wants it to.

Steven said...

"Je vais au parking lot pour trouver mon car."

That line drives them crazy. LOL.

zooplah said...

It's really not that odd for the francophones to do this. In German, there have been a number of Rechtschreibungreformen(orthographic reforms). The latest one was from a couple years ago and was opposed by the public and press, but it's still required for schools and the government. Sure, they're not saying that you can't use English words (English and French words are used to a ridiculous degree in German), but that the spelling of German words have to be congruent with the new system.

Actually, I like the new system. One of the hardest things about German was not always knowing how to spell a word, but this reform fixed that. Now, it's "daß" instead of "dass," so you don't have to remember using two consonants after a long vowel anymore.

I know not exactly the same thing, but most governments do impose these things on their languages. In English, the closest we have is the OED, which might actually be unfortunate, since we have a lot of stuff in our language that could used cleaned up.