How Do We Value French as a Language?

Many Canadian parents want their Anglophone children to be in French Immersion. They believe that being bilingual in French and English will give them an inside track in getting jobs with the government and any organisation that deals with the government. And maybe it will.

Reading, conversation and pop music in French

‪Seducing Dr. Lewis – a charming Quebecois film about a small community on the North Shore trying to find a doctor.

Beau Dommage – La complainte du phoque en Alaska – the lament of a seal in Alaska whose true love has left him for the bright lights of an American circus.

But do they value the language, the literature, the films, the music and the culture? Is their house filled with books and DVDs and CDs from Quebec and other parts of the francophonie? Have they tried themselves to follow something in French, if only the Simpsons or Friends in translation or listened to some of the pop stars from Quebec?

If the only French Anglophone students are listening to is in school and for the purpose of earning marks, are they truly learning the language? They hear more badly pronounced French than otherwise in their classes because they are surrounded by Anglophones speaking French. Very few students entering French Immersion stay in it long enough to complete it. Those who finish are rarely truly bilingual. A friend who does research on bilinguals asks potential employees if they are truly bilingual or French Immersion bilingual because her experience has shown her that there is a distinct difference.

Picking Blueberries by Clarence Gagnon

Clarence Gagnon, 1881 – 1942
Picking Blueberries ,1928-1933
mixed media on paper
21.4 cm x 24.3 cm
Gift of Col. R.S. McLaughlin
McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In France, books are remarkably cheap, especially if they are in French. As a bookworm living in France, I was driven to start reading seriously in French. One of the first books I read was Marie Chapdelaine by Louis Hemon. The scene where he describes the two lovers picking blueberries, then sitting silently, slapping mosquitoes, made me more homesick than any photograph or bottle of maple syrup. For a fast reader like me, one of the advantages of reading in a second language is that I slow down and appreciate the words and turns of phrase more than I do in my own language.

Listening and speaking a second language opens a subtly different way of thinking to us. If you take the time to make friends with francophones you will discover another culture of food, television, music, customs and architecture.

All this opens the door to real tolerance because we know two languages and we truly speak both. How often have you heard the phrase “oh he speaks my language!” meaning someone shares your tastes or interests. Studying French gives Anglophone children that opportunity, but not if they remain cocooned in Anglophone culture, never daring to go further than their classes.

Back to my question: do we truly value French as a language and the introduction to another culture?

French in Britain; French as an upper class marker

I have a theory about the Anglo attitude to French. When I was in my early teens and rather excited about learning French (in Toronto), my best friend and I used to exchange notes in a mish mash of all the languages we knew. That amounted to English, Latin, French, German (in her case) and Pig Latin. I would stick a note in her locker “ou etes vous a lunch? Je quero pour ouyay.” And she would reply “j’etais a band practice. “ And I would finish with “Gesuntheit” so as not to be left behind. Perhaps not the best way to practice our languages but we had fun.

Putting my pied in it

So it was that one day at my aunt’s I said “passez moi la buerre s’il vous plait”. Later my mother took me aside and told me it was rude and pretentious to speak another language in front of someone who didn’t speak it. I was a little perplexed at the time but there were a lot of perplexing things about adult rules.

I wasn’t intending to have a conversation in French; I was fully aware that it would be rude. I reckoned that s’il vous plait was fairly standard in English to the extent we used it on invitations as the last three letters of RSVP. Moi was sometimes used in English in a mocking fashion and I thought passez and buerre were pretty close to the original. In short I didn’t think I had said something that, in the context, would be incomprehensible. I was just using what I had been taught – for fun.

Pretentious French

This issue of the perception of French being pretentious has come up since. My mother is British and she regards French as a pretentious language. German and Spanish, both of which she has studied, are fine.

1066 et tout cela

Bayeux Tapestry Scene 7

Bayeux Tapestry Scene 7 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1066 England was conquered by the Normans and though the intention was not to impose French on the country, the mother tongue of the upper class was French for the next 200 years and important as a second language for a long time thereafter. For a long time Latin was the lingua franca in Europe and therefore used by scholars and in documents. French in England fluctuated in influence among the ruling and aristocratic class for many years and was, officially the language of English courts until 1731. However, for some time before this law and business students were often required to take a French course.

Even as French waned as first language in England for the upper class and the courts, it began to wax as the language of diplomacy. Latin was waning as a lingua franca and was no longer a living language among the educated. French, until very recently historically speaking, was important for diplomats. English may be supplanting it and Chinese may soon come a close second.

Shamed be he who thinks ill of it (shamed be w...

Shamed be he who thinks ill of it (shamed be who ill it thinks) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remnants of the tradition of the British upper class speaking French as a second language remain. Queen Elizabeth II is fluent in French and her heir, Prince Charles, studied it through the equivalent of high school, although with what practical success is unclear. The expectations still seem to be that the most important second language for a British monarch is French.

The mottos twined around the crest is Honi soit qui mal y pense and the one below is Dieu et mon droit which my father translated respectively, but not respectably, as “Honey, your silk stockings are coming down” and “By God, you’re right!”  What is interesting is that these mottoes are in French, not the more customary Latin.

Les cafes, les robes!

Of course, as all things food and dress in France are supposed to be excellent, many expensive dress shops and restaurants have French names, right down to the small cafes which the English pronounce caffs.

Caste Society

There is an expression in England “getting above oneself” which means to have too high an opinion of oneself. In fact, the expression is much more loaded that the definition would suggest. One is above oneself when one acts as if one belongs in a class above one’s own. Getting above oneself is presumptuous. It doesn’t matter whether one presumes by having a splashy wedding or enjoying the perks of a good salary or the pleasures of a good vocabulary courtesy of a good education. If these things are not part of your social circle, you are seen as getting above yourself.

Have things changed?

Perhaps things have changed since my mother’s generation but I suspect they haven’t. My son and daughter-in-law lived in Manchester for several years and noted that there was still a class system. How seriously it is viewed when one steps above one’s class these days is not clear. Perhaps the British are more tolerant but I doubt it.

So speaking French has a long association with the British ruling class, a good education and things expensive. By association speaking it is pretentious for any of the other classes in Britain. These days children might learn French in school but I am willing to bet that for all their parents’ jaunts to Calais to bring back cheap wine, most of the children learning French have yet to use it with a native speaker.

French in Canada: from French as lower class marker to equality

Anne of Green Gables and the barefoot boy

The flip side of this view of French is the Anglo-Canadian one. In L. M. Montgomery’s novels set on Prince Edward Island, there are references to French boys and labourers as something like second citizens in that idyllic culture:

“’i could hire a french boy to help me,’ said matthew,”

“nobody to be had but those stupid, half-grown little french boys; and as soon as you do get one broke in…”

Acadian communities

Acadian communities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no animosity, but there are also no francophones in the local schools according to her novels. She says nothing of French schools.

Acadiennes in Prince Edward Island

The little I could find, on the Internet, spoke of Acadiennes settling in PEI about the mid nineteenth century. Almost all spoke of the Acadiennes as middle class people but they also spoke of them as a people rapidly losing their language, to the extent that although some attended church in French, they couldn’t follow the service. It was a strange disconnect of wanting to be proud of their heritage and burying their language.

And in Quebec

In Quebec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, few francophones had sufficient formal education to go on to post secondary education. Partially as a result, most major business in Quebec was owned or managed by Anglophones. The general pattern was Francophones on the shop floor, a bilingual foreman and Anglophone bosses.

An improvement in education and the status of French

Stop sign in Quebec Français : Panneau arrêt a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since then, the language laws in Quebec insist that any child whose parents were not educated in English in Canada, must be educated in French.  Signs must be in French.  This has led to Eaton’s and Tim Horton’s, two Canadian institutions, becoming ungramatically: Eatons and Tim Hortons .  I believe Quebec is the only country in the Francophonie, perhaps in the world, whose stop sign reads ARRET.  In France it reads STOP.

Joking and the ridiculous outcomes aside, these efforts and others have led to a higher status for French within Quebec even as ambitious Quebecois realise that their children are going to need English to succeed outside of the Francophonie.  The Francophonie I refer to is everywhere that French is spoken.  It is an important concept in Canada, because making ties with other Francophones is seen as a way of strengthening the language and culture.

Dialects of the french language in the world

Dialects of the french language in the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exodus to Maine

Some members of the Canadian Francophonie went south to Maine and other American states, where they learned English and their children were absorbed into the English-speaking American melting pot. After you cross the border into the USA you may see familiar French names but they are usually pronounced as if they were English.

American attitude to having the head of state speak French? Or any foreign language?

Français : Parishes where Francophone Public E...

Français : Parishes where Francophone Public Education exists as of 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

–  headline from the National Post

Newt  Gingrich ad makes fun of Mitt Romney for speaking French

I have only touched the surface of the complex history of French Canadians. I have left out the French in New Brunswick, Cape Breton, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and many other places. I have left out the Riel Resistance (or Rebellion, depending on who is telling the story). If your understanding is that as long as the British have ruled North America, Francophones have been second-class citizens until very recently, then my point is made.

In fairness, a number of governors-general refused to enact regulations that would have brought the British prejudice against Catholics, and therefore the French, to Canada. Had they not stood firm, the French would not have been allowed to participate in the government of the time. As Canadians, we still hope that people emigrating to our country will leave any prejudices of their country, there.

To Conclude

It seems that many Anglophones in Canada might have an attitude to French divided in two or three or even four, depending on their origin, age and ambition.  The language might seem to be a tool in building a successful career; it might seem a part of an excellent education, an identifier of the upper class; it might seem to be an identifier of a second class.  Some Anglophones speak of having French rammed down their throats and I do think that is sad.

With all those possible views, I ask again, how do we value French as a second language?  How are those values reflected in the decision to put a child in French Immersion?  And how are those values reflected when the child is allowed to leave French Immersion?

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