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Posts Tagged ‘language register’

Is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French?

Is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French?

Maybe no and maybe so.

By maybe no,
I mean that learning Québécois French is inherently probably just as easy or just as difficult as learning any other variety of French. I’m sure this point can be argued — maybe you’ll disagree by saying that spoken Québécois French has more colloquial contractions than other varieties of French. This may be true, but the good thing is that contractions can be learned.

You can learn that sur la often contracts informally to s’a in colloquial Québecois French in the same way that de le contracts to du in all varieties of French. The finer points of the pronunciation of Québécois French may also make it more difficult for some people than other varieties, but I don’t think I’d qualify the differences as exceptionally more difficult.

I can accept that Québécois French may be inherently somewhat more difficult, but not to the extremes people sometimes suggest. If you’re enthusiastic about learning the French of Québec, you’ll probably find the mechanics of it more or less equally challenging or equally breezy as any other variety of French.

By maybe so,
I mean that the Québécois make learning French more difficult than it has to be. What I write here may sting, but I believe it to be the truth. If Québécois French feels much more difficult to learn than other varieties of French, the Québécois themselves play a role in this.

A learner of French once asked me if the French (the ones from France) and their refusal to accept the validity of other varieties of French were to blame for the absence of good quality learning materials for Québécois French.

No, I’m afraid the French have nothing to do with it. It would be convenient to place the blame on the French, wouldn’t it? But the Québécois are free to publish whatever they like without having to consult with the French first.

I’m sure there are different reasons for the lack of good quality learning materials for colloquial Québécois French — publishers may not consider it lucrative, for example, to produce materials for a smaller variety of French (Québécois) than for a much larger variety (so-called international French).

Then there is the resistance to teaching what some Québécois themselves consider to be an inferior form of French. The colloquial register (or level) of Québécois French is what the Québécois use when they speak amongst themselves, but many Québécois are reluctant when it comes to explicitly teaching that register of French to non-francophones.

In French courses in Québec, the colloquial register of Québécois French is generally not taught to non-francophones. Students are taught the standard form of Québécois French (the register used in the media, for example). It is of course essential that students be taught this register of French, but equally essential — and probably much more immediately practical — would be to teach colloquial Québécois French, words like pogner and niaiser, and how the Québécois ask yes-no questions with tu, immediately come to mind.

As a learner of French and more specifically Québécois French, you are not a helpless bystander. When learning Québécois French, the best thing you can do for yourself is to cultivate persistence. Continue to speak French when the opportunities arise, work on improving your listening skills, model your spoken French on that of the Québécois, and refuse to let certain people convince you there’s something wrong with what you’re working towards.

You may have had to deal with a teacher who disapproves of Québécois French, a commenter online who’s “warned” you against learning Québécois French because it’s “too different,” a speaker of another variety of French who believes Québécois French to sound rural or, sadly, a Québécois person who believes foreigners should not speak like the Québécois. Listen to what they have to say, then move on. There are many Québécois who will support you in your choice to speak Québécois French. Don’t let the ones who try to stand in your way stand in your way. If I did that whenever I heard a negative comment, there’d be no OffQc.

Back to the original question — is Québécois French more difficult than other varieties of French? Probably. But I’ll end with this:

If you learn to understand and speak like the Québécois, you’ll have stood up to many challenges, such as a lack of learning materials, people who’ll try to steer you off course, and bilingual francophones who’ll switch to English on you. Someone who learns Québécois French has learned a lot more than “just” French along the way — patience, persistence and staying on course despite the challenges, to name a few.

Isn’t that impressive?

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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.

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