Yesterday, I posted a satirical piece about francophones’ attitudes towards French. I suspect the piece was misunderstood, which is of course the risk that comes with writing satirically. The text wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. I’d like to look at some of what I wrote, without the satirical angle this time.
I remember a conversation I had with two friends while at university. One of the friends was anglophone, and the other was francophone. All three of us were speaking in French.
At one point, the anglophone friend talked about his job. He used the words ma job to talk about his work. The francophone friend corrected him almost immediately. He said the anglophone should say mon emploi instead of ma job. He argued that ma job sounded inappropriate for the anglophone to use.
The anglophone said no, that his job was not an emploi. He explained that his job was just temporary work, and that it wasn’t his career. The francophone said the word emploi could be used for any kind of employment. The anglophone was probably splitting hairs for the sake of conversation, but what he was saying isn’t entirely crazy.
The francophone was right in the sense that emploi can be used for any kind of employment, but he was so caught up in his zeal to call out a québécois usage that he deemed inappropriate that he missed the nuance of what the anglophone wanted to convey. For the anglophone, the word emploi was incorrect because that word turned his job into something more important than what it really was to him.
In this case, my anglophone friend could have maybe used the word une jobine instead. This word conveys the idea of a small job or project, or in my friend’s case, “unimportant” work carried out just for the money. I avoided suggesting the word jobine to him in that moment, though. I didn’t want to give the francophone friend a heart attack by revealing such a québécois word to an anglophone.
This was the point that I wanted to make with the joke about saying posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique instead of fucker le chien. It would be incorrect to say posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique, even if the words in this made-up expression literally mean the same thing as the words in fucker le chien. It feels wrong to alter the expression like this because fucker sounds necessarily more crude than posséder sexuellement, and because canidé domestique sounds unnecessarily more scientific than chien. Similarly, saying mon emploi instead of ma job felt wrong to my anglophone friend because it added a level of seriousness to his temporary work in a way that he didn’t like.
The part about how posséder sexuellement le canidé domestique is the way that it’s said in France is also a joke. Nobody uses this expression, not in Québec and not in France. The idea behind the joke is this: eleminating an expression that sounds too québécois in favour of another one that sounds more like international French or like French from France does not automatically make the expression correct.
Perhaps you’ll remember the scene from 30 vies where a teacher corrects a student who describes a character he’s invented for a story as un tough. The teacher says he shouldn’t describe his character as un tough because tough is an anglicism; she says he should describe his character as un dur instead. The student, in turn, corrects the teacher by saying: Ben non! Dur, c’est moins tough que tough!
The student understands something that the teacher doesn’t: replacing a québécois usage for an international one doesn’t necessarily result in an improvement of language.
Pretty doesn’t equal right.
I’m not saying that speakers should always stay in the informal level of the québécois variety of French. Different language situations call for different kinds of French. What I am saying is that just because a word or expression belongs to an international kind of French doesn’t automatically make it inherently better, especially when using that word results in a change of meaning. Dur, c’est moins tough que tough.
I ended the piece by saying that one would be better off learning Spanish instead of French to avoid developing a complex of one’s own. I’m joking, of course. I don’t discourage anybody from learning French. Now that OffQc is approaching 1000 posts, I would hope there’d be no doubt on this point.
But behind this joke is my belief that we needlessly complicate the language learning experience for newcomers to Québec. We do newcomers no favours whatsoever by discouraging them from wanting to understand the way French is spoken in Québec. A teacher of French from Québec once accused me of teaching bad French on OffQc. What this teacher fails to recognise, much to my disappointment, is that native speakers of French and learners of French have very different needs.
I can only imagine the dismay he must have felt when he discovered I was presenting on OffQc the kind of language he probably strives to eradicate amongst his native French-speaking students. But a language learner does not have the luxury of being able to skip over the parts of language deemed incorrect. The language learner must learn to understand all of it — even the parts native speakers don’t think are very pretty.
The usual criticism about the way French is used in Québec is that more prestigious forms of language are rejected by speakers. If there is truth to this, then it mostly occurs between native speakers themselves. When a learner of French enters the scene, the tables are often turned and it’s the colloquial form of French that’s often rejected. This explains why so many learners of French have commented to me that Québecois French seems like a secret language, one that they aren’t allowed access to. Hiding the colloquial variety of French is very detrimental to newcomers. Not only does it limit how far they’ll go in the language, it can also erode their self-esteem because it makes them feel like outsiders who don’t belong.
I do my best to point out when certain usages are best to be avoided by learners. For example, I continue to discourage you from saying moé and toé because they are too heavily stigmatised by the native speakers. But I will never discourage you from learning to understand any aspect of language.
In French courses for newcomers to Québec, the colloquial language as used in Québec is almost entirely overlooked. Perhaps a better word would be shunned. This doesn’t mean students in those courses are learning French from France, though. They’re learning a standardised form of Québécois French — the kind used in the media, for example. But it’s not enough. Teaching newcomers only one register of language — the most prestigious one — puts them at a disadvantage.
I’ve seen too many examples of newcomers who’ve made a dedicated effort to learn French in these courses only to find themselves unable to communicate effectively in real language encounters. I do realise of course that there’s no student who’s going to walk out of any language course, no matter how fantastic the course may be, and speak effortless French. That would be utopic. But when I come across a newcomer who’s gone through all the levels of French and still doesn’t know that tu as almost always contracts to t’as when people speak colloquially, there’s a problem.
Yes, the responsibility for learning a language will always lie with the student. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of offering French courses in the attempt to help newcomers to integrate, can’t we please drop the ideology that the colloquial language of Québec is inferior and begin teaching newcomers the way people really speak in the kind of language situations they’re most likely to find themselves?
With all of this in mind, perhaps you’ll reread my text from yesterday and even find some humour in it this time — or disagree with it entirely, that’s fine too.