Friday, August 31, 2007

lingua franca

Canada, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a bilingual country. If you are an Anglophone in Ottawa, like myself, you are probably hyper-aware of this fact. Coming from a unilingual small town in Ontario, followed by attending a unilingual southwestern Ontario university (I am sure Francophones the world over shudder at the way we pronounce “Laurier”), I grew up in the world of dominant culture English-language privilege. In 1995, I didn’t understand why so many people in Quebec wanted to separate.

In 2000, when I lived in Scotland, many of my closest friends were French Canadian. We hung out with Australians and Southern Americans, and we all learned about each others’ cultures. It was the first time that I really appreciated that French Canadians weren’t just the same as us in another language – they really have a whole different culture. It was also the first time that the Francophones had a sense of being Canadian, and not just Quebecois. When they came to visit me back in Canada, I took them to Lake Huron, and Bru looked at the lake so big it’s a sea, and then turned to me and said “this is part of my country,” realizing it for the first time.

So, anyway, here I am in Ottawa – a wiser and more cosmopolitan (ha!) person than I was at the age of 22. In keeping with the bilingual mandate of the university, speeches given by Anglophones at law school and conferences were often begun by a short “bonjour, je suis très hier d’être ici aujourd’hui” – before switching into English. Sometimes, the accent of the person who says that, especially if it’s a visitor from America or parts more west in Canada, can be pretty hideous. I was talking recently with a Francophone friend, who finds this practice totally offensive – she would rather not have people try at all than to put in the token effort of their well-rehearsed 2 lines of French to get the language police off their backs.

Coming from the point of view of an Anglophone, I always thought it was good that people tried to speak French. Most of the people who open with the French one-liner would not be able to deliver their entire speech in French – so they are going as far as they can. Learning a language is a long and on-going process, and somewhere between the point of being unilingual and bilingual, you have to muddle through in your second language, or you’ll never get to point b.

The discussion on tokenism came up in response to a Anglo friend of ours who did one of those one-liners, and had a French-speaking colleague mutter “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English” – which completely crushed her after she’d made the effort to speak in her second language, being scared of getting it wrong and being perceived as stupid.

I, and many other unilingual Anglophones, have realized that to really succeed in this town we need to learn French. Suddenly those years of high school French (which I at least took all the way to grade 13) seem awfully far away. But this is what offends my friend – people who only learn French to pass their government language tests and “get by in this town” – but don’t really appreciate that it’s a whole language that embodies a way of thinking, as all languages do. But it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that about their own language. How many Anglophones have read great French poetry?, she asks. But how many Anglophones have read great English poetry?, I couldn’t help but respond.

I am in the linguistic majority. Not just in Canada, but in the world. Anglophones experience a great level of privilege by being able to expect that other people should learn and speak their language, rather than the other way around. I saw it in Ecuador, when people would apologize for their bad English, and I would always be amazed that I had to tell them that my Spanish was the problem – I don’t think most Anglo tourists that they encountered would have shared my sentiment. In Norway, people speak amazing English, but my Grandmother was still upset when not all of the museums were in our language. I think that it is generally bumping up against this privilege – the assumptions of entitlement – that make Francophones frustrated with token French phrases.

I am going to continue to learn French. I honestly don’t know if I will ever be able to read great French poetry, but I hope that I will be able to laugh when my Francophone friends make jokes. I am going to do this both because I need to for my job, but also because I live in a bilingual country, and I want to experience it fully. While I am learning, I will say things poorly when I get the courage to say them at all – and I hope that Francophone will appreciate the spirit in which the effort is given and encourage me, because I will never get their jokes if they don’t help me through the baby steps.

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