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Learn French, hostie d'anglais!

Posted by MP / December 2, 2005

nordiques.gifMy family moved to Quebec City in 1979. I was five years old. We’d been living in Montreal since I was two, but since we lived in the west part of town, I didn’t have much exposure to French. So I was confused as hell when we got to Quebec and suddenly, everyone around me was speaking this language I couldn’t understand a single word of. I distinctly remember asking my mom, "Why are they talking like that?” Apparantly the entire concept of another language had thus far eluded me.

I picked it up pretty fast, though. In kindergarten I was pretty hopeless, but by Grade 1 I was rocking it. I remember that on the first day of school, one of the kids mistook me for some other kid named Jérome. “J’suis pas Jérome,” I said. Note my excellent use of contraction and the dropped negative. Motherfuckers practice and practice that shit in their French classes and still can’t get it. Yes, I’m very proud of it to this day.

By the time I hit Grade 4, my English accent was almost gone, while my parents were still struggling with the intermediate tenses and grammar. Kids have a particular ability to internalize systemic rules. My dad told me about watching my brother, then four, declaring as he left his playmates: “I’faut que j’m’en aille.” He had effortlessly tossed off the subjunctive tense which my dad had been grappling with to no avail. But then, if you tossed a kid into a lake, they’d probably figure out how to swim pretty fast, too.

There are some sounds that I never quite got. To this day I still can’t get the “r” sound totally right. I remember once back in school, some bullies tried to trick me into making the sound so they could make fun of my accent. I cleverly avoided saying any words with “r.” Then they made me recite the alphabet. I managed to make it through twice skipping the “r” before they noticed. Assholes.

I was too young to realize it at the time, but of course in retrospect, Quebec City in the early 80s was a pretty terrible time to be the only Anglo kid at your entire school. The political situation combined with childrens’ natural sadistic cruelty meant that my life was a daily barrage of insults, mockery, social exclusion, and the occasional beating.

Boo-hoo-hoo – cue the strings. A little while ago, I was bellyaching to someone I’d just met at a party about how difficult it was to grow up as an Anglo in Quebec. Then I remembered that I was talking to a gay black guy. All of a sudden my childhood trauma seemed pretty petty.

We moved from Quebec City to Ottawa when I was twelve. Now I was amidst my own culture, but somehow my social life never really improved. Maybe I was used to being an outcast and figured it was easier to just stick with it, or maybe I would have been a reject no matter where I grew up. Who cares? French class was sure a lot easier.

I spent most of my twenties in Toronto, where there was absolutely zero opportunity to practice French. So when I moved back to Montreal in 2001, I figured it was going to be pretty harsh. Sure enough, in the first few months, I had to suffer the humiliation of forgetting a word or expression, and then having the Francophone person just switch into English out of exasperation, but eventually I got back on my feet. I sometimes figure that I’ll have to spend some time in a totally Francophone environment – move to Chicoutimi or something – to get back to 100%. But I’ll tell you one thing: I kick the ass of a whole lot of Montreal Anglos.

Crisses d’anglais! They move here and then parade around blithely addressing people in English like the biggest Ugly American assholes you’ve ever imagined. At some level their ignorance is innocuous: they’re merely speaking the only language they know. But would a Francophone waltz into a store in Calgary and start busting out the French? It’s a particularly Anglo kind of arrogance to just assume that the person you’re speaking to understands English – and that if they don’t, they should.

I mean, if you’re a tourist, fine, but if you live here? Make some fucking effort. The Montreal school board offers classes for next to nothing. Would you move to Italy without learning a little Italian? To live here without learning at least some French is equivalent to being one of those colonial Brits who occupied Africa – enjoying the scenery while making sure that your servants know your language enough to receive your commands.

Some people point out that learning French is hard. Well, no shit. Pretty much anything worth doing is hard, except maybe masturbation. Learning another language is particularly difficult for an adult – when you have your job, family, bills to pay, and the general misery of existence to preoccupy you, there just isn’t that much space left in your brain. But just as working out at the gym is good for your body, learning new stuff is good for your mind.

Plus, French is a totally cool language. There’s a reason why we use expressions like je ne sais quoi, faux pas, etc: because there’s no better way of saying that in English. Then of course there’s the whole sexy thing. My personal theory is that French is a sexy language because of the masculine and feminine form. In English pretty much the only feminine words we have are “she” and “her.” (And those words rule). But in French, if a girl says, “I’m happy” or “I’m nervous” or whatever, it’s the feminine meaning of that word. Heavy. Of course, the fact that all nouns are either masculine or feminine is one of the hardest things to internalize when learning French, but if you plunge right in eventually you never even think about it.

The other thing is that we have an incredible privilege as Canadians. There’s an entire different culture at our disposal right here in our own country. In Montreal, you can explore exotic rituals, arcane traditions and other cultural quirks without leaving your damn balcony.

No doubt, Quebec French is a mysterious thicket to penetrate. First of all, there are so many contractions that the average sentence, written out, might just have more apostrophes than letters. Add to that the totally bizarre slang and the range of regional accents, and you’ve got a language that’s a linguist’s wet dream, but a huge brain-breaking pain in the ass for a neophyte.

But coudon, là, it’s worth the effort. First of all, it’s a minimal level of respect towards the people of this society to at least try speaking to them in their own language. And secondly, if you speak Quebec French, you’ll be incredibly sophisticated, and totally ghetto, at the same time. That’s something that can be said for very, very few accomplishments, and from a social-standing point of view, it’s pretty much the gold standard. Anwaille, câlisse! Vas-y!



Noé / December 2, 2005 at 01:16 pm
On vote bleu ou rouge?
Roxanne / December 6, 2005 at 10:30 pm
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Exactement, ce que je pense, mais dit par un anglophone.
Tu es officiellement un de mes anglophones préférés !
Dorénavant, j'envoie tous mes amis anglos têtus lire ce texte.
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