It's tough to find a person in Montreal that will respond to you in French, not English

Friday, September 04, 2009

Le Devoir has an op-ed here by a journalist named Ean Higgins on the subject, who apparently is fairly good at French (says he has just completed an intensive course at McGill) but has a very hard time getting people in Montreal to respond to him in French and thus has adopted a number of techniques to avoid speaking in English when this happens. Many that love French and wish to speak it but aren't fluent come into contact with this same problem, such as in this post.

Here's part of the op-ed:

What do I have to do to persuade francophones from Quebec to speak in French when I address them?

Even when that happens, for the most part it's just to be polite, and it's embarrassing for an anglophone who has finished a high-level French course to only meet francophones that respond in English.

I'm in total agreement with those that denounce the fact that there are many businesses at Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal, where one cannot be served in French because the owner or the employees do not speak it. But it's ironic that an anglophone should be irritated by this inconsistency.

To avoid this annoyance, I've developed several techniques. One of these is very simple: I continue to speak in French, regardless of what happens.

For example, the other day I was going to the Quebec Health Insurance Bureau, to renew my card after living thirty years in Australia. I began to speak in French, but the woman (working there) responded to me in English. I pretended to only understand French, and achieved a small victory: she finally deigned to speak to me in the national language (French).

(skip ahead a few paragraphs)

But this tactic is a bit aggressive for daily life, so I tried out some other strategies. When in a convenience store once and someone responded to be in English I said "I'm sorry sir, but I'm from Ukraine and I don't speak English very well."

That's effective because it's rare for someone to know a Ukrainian accent. It's also more credible that a Ukrainian might speak French but not English compared to someone from the Netherlands or Sweden for example.

Another strategy I've adopted is more satisfactory - to say "I'm sorry Madam, but I don't speak English very well - I'm from Saint-Pierre et Miquelon." (the two French islands just off the coast of Newfoundland).

Another one:

"Yes indeed madam, it's a very strange accent. It's because my ancestors are Basque and Breton...even the French in Paris find my accent to be a bit strange."

And if I make a grammatical mistake and the Quebecois correct me, one can say "Yes madam, that's very interesting; we have several unique grammatical nuances to us in Saint-Pierre et Miquelon."
You can read a response (a positive one) to this op-ed here in French on Mr. Higgins' fight to preserve French by pretending to be from elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

This is a curious story which reveals something of the psychology of language use. I have a similar story relating to Welsh. When I first learned the Welsh language, it really took an effort of well to persuade native speakers to use their mother tongue with me. I think they were simply trying to be kind to me, or perhaps they saw Welsh as inferior to English in some way. Like Higgins, I continue to speak in Welsh, regardless of what happens.

Unknown said...

I believe people from Saint-Pierre et Miquelon wouldn't find this guy nice for trying to pass by as one of them. :D

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