An Anglophone in Quebec

So I think it’s about time to recount my impressions as an anglophone in a French-speaking province. I hadn’t explained in the past, but I’m in Quebec as part of a five-week immersion program that promotes bilingualism through learning French. It’s an intensive program, since you’re meant to speak only French during your stay. There are incentives for it, just like there are sanctions for speaking English. In the first week, everyone is placed into different course levels according to their individual knowledge of the language. There’s beginner, intermediate, advanced and superior. We all wear coloured bracelets according to our levels, which makes coordinating communication easier with other people if you know their comprehension level. While here, I’ve been learning a lot about the development of Quebecois society and culture as we know it today. In addition, I take classes in writing and oral expressions.

While I could go into a myriad of details about the above-mentioned facets to my daily schedule, I’d rather touch upon the uniqueness of my situation. I go out to the city very often. And although, admittedly, Quebec City is very touristy, and the people bilingual, I find French language is still predominant. I’m in the superior level in my courses, but that doesn’t mean I’m confident with a language that isn’t my mother-tongue. Nonetheless, I still want to learn the language. Going out to a restaurant, the grocery story, or even asking for directions requires  confidence when approaching someone in a foreign tongue. The first phrase, usually a question or brief statement I form in my head, is grammatically correct, well thought-out, and sometimes fools the people into thinking I’m Quebecois. Their response is what determines how the conversation will go. A waiter at a restaurant might explain what a dish includes in French. But if, let’s say, they speak too quickly for me to follow, I might have to ask them to repeat themselves more slowly. Keep in mind that the majority of locals understand and speak English better than we, as Anglo-Canadians, know French. English is a universal language, and must be studied more rigorously here, from primary school to Cejep years, for them to get around. So it’s nothing for a Quebecois to perceive my accent, or frankly my uncertainty, and switch over to English to simplify my life. Admittedly, I sometimes don’t have the guts to pursue conversation in French either. So my efforts have been wasted. Other times I persist,specify that I’m an immersion student, and would they oblige to speak in French? The people here are extremely gracious and helpful. I remember receiving an entire tour of a small art gallery, historical context for most of the art pieces as well, in French. So you have every opportunity to learn.

But I’m also human. As much as I’d like to say that I speak, think and dream in French, I’d be lying. My motivation isn’t as strong to challenge myself the way I have seen some of my classmates do. I speak French in school, where there are students, teachers and monitors around. But anywhere outside the main university buildings is a free-zone. Just don’t get caught! Nonetheless, it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much French culture and not improve your oral understanding, in the very least. A few months ago I became obsessed with a Quebec-based drama on Netflix. There are English subtitles, of course, but in recent weeks I’ve relied less and less on them to understand the emission. The accent has become familiar, the expressions almost native to me…It’s incredible when you can feel a shift in your senses, new neuron connections being made to make room for more knowledge.

Though I enjoy most of my classes, my favourite has to be Quebec and its Culture. For three weeks, we learned about the settlement of the French colonials in Quebec, the development of cities, and the English Conquest. What was most interesting was learning about how the feeling of belonging has changed among Quebecois over the years. For a long time, it was toward Canada; but after the Catholic Church regained power among the people, their was fear of assimilation and loss of Francophone culture in the country, that led to tensions and a false sense of belonging to France. All this brought about issues of language insecurity, a desire to wipe out any anglo-inspired words or phrases, and a validation of quality for anything French.

Learning this made me realize that, where Americans tend to think that Quebec-based French isn’t really French; or that, because of its history and the evolution of its accent, we shouldn’t learn it in schools like we do standard French, there’s a rich story that is unique to the Quebec province that holds its own in Francophone culture. It has merit, and doesn’t need to have the same phrases, expressions, or even accents as France. Look at Belgium or Switzerland in those respects. The people here are proud of who they are, just as I’m proud to learn French in my native country.

~ I

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