When I was in my early twenties, I began learning French with the idea of using it in different countries as a vehicular language. Later on, I had the idea of continuing to use it in my daily life and having been born and grew up in the United States, I thought that moving to Québec and establishing myself in a city like Montréal would be perfect.
So I moved to Montréal. I had a friend from my French conversation group in Minneapolis who was from St-Bruno, on the rive-sud of Montréal. She was having problems with her life in the states and moved back to Québec and came to pick me up at the airport. I stayed with her and her roommate for two weeks until I found a place of my own. Right away, she was insistent that we speak in English because she didn’t want to lose the English that she worked so hard to acquire.
This annoyed me of course, because my main goal, besides eventually getting myself established in Québec society and finding a job, was to speak French as often as possible, if not all time. Sort of like how I used to speak in English all the time. I soon discovered that this would not be possible, not only because of my previous work experience as a writer, who by default, will always write a little better in English, because of my formation in an Anglophone environment, but also because the pull of English is so strong. Everyone wants to speak it because it’s oh-so-international.
I can accept that my written French and accent will never be as good as my English, but that doesn’t deter me from wanting to use it as often as possible. Then one fine day, I’ll be able to think and dream in French (like all the non-Anglophones living in the states claim to do in English) and to conceive thoughts and concepts in this language, which will open doors in my mind that one single language (English) cannot. I believe that every language is a perspective on the world which allows different ideas to come forth. No one language can be a vessel for all human mental conception, no matter how versatile people believe it to be.
It goes without saying that this created a certain friction between my friend and myself. She told me that she cared about Québec and that her voting penchants leaned towards sovereignty, however she maintained this very strange attitude about English. It wasn’t enough to speak it fluently. If she forgot a word, or didn’t know this or that expression, it was the most horrible thing imaginable and she would say—“See! I am losing my English and I worked so hard to acquire it!”
Okay, I can understand that. I was always in an uphill battle trying to acquire French in a small village in francophone Africa, or globalized urban France or living in the United States. However, I know that if I weren’t living in an area where I wasn’t speaking it every day, it would be normal to sometimes forget words. You just need to make an effort to keep it. For me, this included attending a conversation group every week, listening to films in French and trying to read books in French, new vocabulary here and there.
The rest of my life was in English, mostly because I didn’t have the choice because among Anglophones, the vast majority speaks only English. Furthermore, if the linguistic environment is anglophone, one just doesn’t run around expecting people to speak in another language. In Québec, it seems that people want to bring their individual practicing of English into public life. Speaking in French is not enough. When they sense an opportunity to practice their English, they jump at it, even if the other person wants to practice French.
I even had people say to me that it was unfair that we speak French all the time and to insist on it continually was just me being selfish. I was told that we needed to speak English at least 50% of the time so that we can both benefit from one another. They say this to me on Québec soil. Do they not realize that they would not have anyone telling them outside of Québec—“Okay, you need to speak French with me at least some of the time because you need to help me practice if I am expected to help you practice.” Outside of Québec, people just go about their business, in English. And if you’re goal is to improve your English, you will benefit from that.
Nevertheless, people don’t do that in Québec, or at least they don’t in Montréal. I was told to leave Montréal if I wanted to speak “French only”. First of all, even if I did that, there is hardly any place in Québec where it actually is French only. You go to Estrie, there is an Anglophone university and plenty of people ready and willing to speak English when they hear your accent. You go to Québec City, and while it’s true that there are some who don’t speak English (they usually say it with enormous shame), it’s hardly “French only” in Québec City. The Outaouais is pretty bilingual. Gaspésie is close to the anglophone Maritimes. It’s rare to be forced to use French.
Second of all, the region of Montréal is half of Québec’s population. If the metropolitan region is bilingualized (read: anglicized), then what other effect could that have on the rest of Québec other than the same thing? Furthermore, why should a people’s largest city have to be institutionally bilingual? Bilingualism should be a personal choice and not be a requirement to perform any and all jobs in Québec. In Oslo, most people have a very good grasp on English, though there is no push to make the city institutionally bilingual.
One might say that there is no historical Anglophone community in Norway, which is why Montréal must be bilingual. What about Sudbury and Moncton? Haven’t these cities had historical francophone communities? In the real world (and not some Canadian government bilingualism statistic), despite substantial francophone minorities, don’t these cities function primarily in English? Isn’t Ottawa supposed to be bilingual? The capital of Canada is really an anglophone city with a few bilingual francophones scattered here and there. When you speak in French in the street or in shops, you get told to go to Québec if you want to speak French.
Anyway, getting back to Montréal, I was also unprepared for how anglicized the downtown area is. This seems mostly due to those two anglophone universities and the West Island population. I didn’t realize that the West Island was not at all bilingual, but full of unilingual Anglophones. I remember going to the swimming pool at the YMCA on Peel and Maisonneuve and only the most basic of services were in French. Just try discussing anything with them beyond “hello” (such as not having the most current address on your driver’s license or the pool being closed) and they answer you in English. You ask them to respond in French, they refuse. You persist and they raise their voice and argue with you. One time, there was an immigrant from Haiti or francophone Africa, who refused to speak to me in French. I can imagine because he was so enamored with English pop culture and consequently would only speak that, however, people like him would never admit it. Finally, they found a middle aged Quebecer lady (the only one working there) to pretty much tell me to leave, though at least she did it in French.
Now, imagine someone with my accent asking to be served in French. To be spoken to in French. Do you think anyone would actually do it? I don’t know which is worse, the “old stock” Anglophones or the first or second generation immigrant people who, despite la loi 101, persist in speaking English and only English, even if their French is better. Who would have thought language was so complicated? Why don’t Anglophones and Allophones take more of an interest in Québec and in French? Why are they so centered on their own little experience? Why don’t they open themselves up to French? Why do they close off the exterior world from themselves?
More importantly, why are Francophones, especially those in Montréal, not at ease with their language in the same way that Anglophones are? I’m pretty sure I know why, but do you?