Pardon my French

Posted 03.06.06

I have a confession to make. Although I've lived in Quebec for thirty-eight years, I still can't hold a conversation in French.

It isn't for lack of trying.

When I first moved here, I realized that two years of high school French in Connecticut and a year of college French (required to pass the "exit" exam), had given me a solid grounding in grammar, a comprehensive vocabulary, and the ability to read the local paper with ease, but no facility in speaking.

I thought that would be easily mended by living in Gatineau. But every time I tried to speak to a store clerk or a neighbor, the other person quickly switched to English. The only people I could practice on were small children.

I took an evening class, but that wasn't offered in subsequent years, and I didn't have the opportunity to take advantage of some of the language teaching offered in Ottawa, because those classes were held at times or locations that didn't fit my busy schedule.

I envied a local teacher, who spent one summer enrolled in a course at the University of Ottawa, where they had instruction every morning and spent their afternoons at galleries, museums, cafes, and shopping malls, where they practiced conversing in French with each other as well as with clerks and waitresses who agreed to participate.

Meanwhile, I was floundering, mispronouncing words, and struggling to mouth even the simplest of phrases.

And I couldn't understand a thing. Quebec joual distorts vowels so badly that unless I know the context, I quickly become lost.

I can follow a debate on French TV, because most politicians speak slowly and clearly, using proper grammar and pronunciation. But turn the channel to a French sit-com or drama, and I'm stymied.

Meanwhile, I was dismayed to see public money spent to duplicate broadcasts of hockey games, awards shows, and concerts on both French and English CBC networks. How would the nation ever become bilingual that way?

I don't question the need to protect French culture in Quebec, and I applaud subsidies given to Quebec writers, film makers, performing arts organizations, and others who spread this culture not only across the province but around the world.

But why has money been diverted from those worthy efforts to the "language police?"

How is persecuting small businesses whose signs and advertising is primarily in English further Quebec culture?

If Quebec had spent more time pushing for bilingual education from kindergarten up, and less time keeping the children of anglophone immigrants from attending the schools of their choice, we'd be much further ahead today.

In January, I noticed that Cité collégiale in Ottawa is offering both credit and non-credit courses three evenings a week. The large ad in the Ottawa Citizen proclaimed, "Learn French in a French Environment."

Where is a similar program on this side of the river? The only ads I've seen for classes in French are in Aylmer. Why isn't the CGEP close to me in "old" Gatineau offering this type of class?

The Ottawa Citizen, in the midst of the federal election, devoted an editorial to the Quebec sign law. They called it "an infringement on the rights of the non-French minority in Quebec," claiming that it violates our freedom of speech.

Don't tear down signs and force small businesses to go bankrupt in order to fight an unfair lawsuit.

Instead, please, s'il vous plait, teach us to speak French!

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of the 20th anniversary edition of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2006 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.06