jeudi 17 mars 2016

Bilingualism 101...

David Lisbona to Pierre Allard on Twitter, March 16, 2016:
"Allow me to understand then, what you are suggesting is that because it is inevitable that bilingualism means English only, that you would prefer to stem what appears to be a 'natural flow' toward English by placing artificial constructs and constants, not to mention expose other French Canadians to the benefits of learning another language? Let me ask, if it was any other language than English, it appears to me that you would have less of a problem. Is that accurate? You obviously feel that any language restrictions regardless how onerous are justified in the name of French language protection."

Dear Mr. Lisbona,

What lead to your four-Tweet long question was my comment to Dan Delmar's column in the Montréal Gazette, in which he painted what he called French Canadian "anti-bilinguals" as a Québec "ethnic nationalist" faction. I answered that here, again, was "just another Anglo who understood nothing" (un autre Anglo qui ne comprend rien) about the complexities of bilingualism among French-speakers in this country. His and your misinterpretation of my point of view led to a lengthy exchange of Tweets that seems to have cleared up very little.

Frankly, Mr. Lisbona, short of meeting to compare in great detail our knowledge of Québec and Canadian history, I don't know where to start to find common ground. The chasm that separates our life experiences seems, at first glance, too wide to bridge. So just bear with me while I tell you what it was like growing up as a French-Canadian in Ottawa's West End, in the fifties and sixties. And it's all about bilingualism…

In my neighbourhood (called Mechanicsville because it was first inhabited by mechanics living close to the CP train yards nearby), you hardly heard any English spoken. Between Wellington Street (the Parliament buildings are on that street) and the Ottawa River, just west of Lebreton Flats, it was like a French Canadian village inside the capital.

My first experience with English came when I was 7 or 8 years old. Our corner store had a new owner, a Mediterranean-born newcomer to Canada, and we found we had to speak English to him. He didn't care that 90% plus of his customers spoke French. Why should he? He was in Ontario… From that day on, I knew that to buy candy, I had to know how to ask for it in English… because he couldn't or wouldn't answer me in French…

When we were kids, friends and neighbours would gather outside on the porches after supper, to chat. We were young, but never failed to notice that when an "Anglais" stopped to join the conversation, everyone stopped speaking French and reverted to English… It didn't take me long to learn that when a French-Canadian joined a conversation of 5, 6 or 10 English-speakers, nobody changed to French… Children know how to distinguish the strong from the weak...

Then, at age 11 or 12, in grades 7 or 8 at our elementary French Canadian school, all of a sudden the teacher split our school days in two. French in the morning, English in the afternoon. Why? We didn't know about Regulation 17 and its aftermath… We must have figured it was the same in all schools, even for anglophone schoolchildren. But it wasn't…

When I was 13, it was time for high school but there were no French-language secondary schools in Ontario… It was either going to English-language Fisher Park High School (which most of our friends attended, with predictable results on their cultural behaviour) or going to a private bilingual school where half our classes would be in French. My parents had to borrow money to pay for the tuition…

I went to Ottawa U High School (the University of Ottawa had its own high school then), located in downtown Ottawa, my first real experience outside the neighbourhood. For the first time I had daily contact with English-speaking kids, who often called us "frogs". I guess they learned that from their parents… Sometimes we we told to "Speak white", which I quickly understood as an order to speak English… Racial intolerance was not only about the colour of your skin, it seems…

I also found out that just asking for tickets in French on an Ottawa city bus could be a frightening experience for a child. But kids learn quickly… I started talking to bus drivers in English, unless I knew one to be French-speaking…

By now we were in the early sixties and we had an Ottawa mayor who, whatever other qualities she may have had, hated French Canadians… When students at our high school posted hand-made French translations on crosswalk signs in protest, they were arrested, dragged to court and fined.

Many of my grandparents' generation spoke only French, even some of my parents' generation. But almost all of my friends were bilingual, by obligation, not by choice. By the time they were adults, for many of them English had become the habitual language. The following younger generation was less bilingual, mainly because many spoke only English. And in the next generation, things will only get worse. Collective bilingualism will have been a temporary, two or three-generation evolution from French to English…

Don't think this, or my own experience, is exceptional. Outside areas where French-language speakers form a solid majority, this is the norm, and federal censuses bear this out since the 1960s. This phenomenon is now even showing up in Québec, in regions like the Pontiac, the Lower Gatineau valley and Montréal's West Island. This is not a "natural flow" toward English. It the result of actions and policies by successive governments and communities that go back to Lord Durham's time in 1839.

Why do you think all provinces (except Québec) outlawed French-language schools in the first half-century of Confederation? These are relevant chapters in Canadian history that most English-Canadians know little or nothing about. French-Canadians are the most bilingual "nation" in Canada. Québec is the most bilingual province in Canada. Concerns raised about the effect of this imposed bilingualism are being raised from coast to coast, by federalists as well as separatists… not just by an "ethnic nationalist" faction in Québec…

Another point to make. French, here and across the country, throughout the continent and around the world, is not only a language for communication. It serves as a vehicle for our original North American culture, with its musicians, singers, authors, actors, film-makers, teachers, scientists, etc. It is still thriving, and deserves to continue thriving over future centuries. To succeed, there has to a at least one little corner of North America where French is the common language. What we have now, in Canada, is a form of bilingualism that too often forces French-Canadians to use both languages, while allowing English-speakers - even in places like Montréal - to remain unilingual.

I could go on for chapters, but one last thought. Recently, at the Salon du livre de l'Outaouais, one of the the main attractions (that day) was Dany Laferrière, a Québec author, member of France's illustrious Académie française, originally from Haïti, a strong defender of our culture and language. Also, recently, I finished reading Rhapsodie québécoise, an excellent essay in favour of a French Québec by a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, Akos Verboczy. And this week I heard a "resistance" song that worries about the future of the French language here, by Nicola Ciccone, a Québécois of Italian origins who sings in both Italian and French. So much for Québec's ethnic nationalists…

Everyone should learn a second, third or fourth language. By choice. You yourself speak about the "benefits of learning another language". I agree. But then, why do so few English-speaking Canadians, especially outside Québec, preach by example?

Yours sincerely,
Pierre Allard
Gatineau, Québec

1 commentaire:

  1. Monsieur Allard,

    Quelle belle réponse que j'approuve à 100%. Malheureusement, il y a encore beaucoup trop de «canadiens-français» qui croient, ou plutôt' qui rêvent de voir les «canadiens-anglais» finir par comprendre et devenir bilingues comme nous, sans réaliser l'assimilation galopante évidente sur Statistiques Canada, malgré les «cachettes» dans le but de nous tromper.

    Mon expérience se compare à la vôtre, à la différence que, je suis né à Montréal dans un quartier ouvrier appelé «maintenant» le Plateau Mont-Royal. Très jeune, j'ai réalisé que dans mon quartier, il y avait des «anglais» et qu'ils étaient presque tous unilingues.

    Pendant cette période, j'allais visiter ma famille en Ontario durant un mois à chaque été. Pour nous y rendre, nous devions prendre le train à la gare Windsor. Dans la plupart des villages de l'est ontarien, je ne voyais pas de différence puisque la plupart des gens ne parlait que le français à cette époque, et c'était encore plus présent dans ma très nombreuse famille. J'allais même à Ottawa dans des quartiers à majorité francophone.

    Depuis plus de 60 ans que je constate la dégradation du français au Canada, ayant voyagé à quelques reprises dans la plupart de ses régions d'est en ouest. Je parle et je lis l'anglais sans trop de difficulté, sans être parfait bilingue et je me débrouille un peu en espagnol.

    J'ai commencé à réaliser vers la fin des années 60, alors que j'approchais de la trentaine, que les promesses des élus à Ottawa n'étaient que de la poudre aux yeux qui assurait LEUR réélection et leur retraite dorée, à nos frais. Je ne crois plus à ce Canada qui n'est plus le mien.

    J'espère que dans les prochains mois, le nouvel organisme IRAI pourra réveiller les québécois rêveurs.

    Au plaisir d'échanger.

    Gilles Sauvageau