A few months ago, I appeared in an episode of my friend’s podcast, and gave my thoughts on the status of French in anglophone Canada. I mentioned that “the rest of Canada is quite resentful of having to learn this useless language”. Another one of my friends later expressed that perhaps the judgement was a bit harsh. I think it was appropriate.
For all my non-existent non-Canadian readers, I will provide a brief summary of the status of French in Canada. As one of the official languages in Canada, its presence is required on virtually all informative signage: government documents, liability waivers, and cereal boxes. For most people in most of Canada however, French education starts at nine years of age, and ends at fifteen. It is taught in a classroom environment, often by under-qualified teachers. It’s also a subject that demands rote memorization at a grade level where few other subjects do: think of the logic in early math and science, or the storytelling in English and social sciences. French requires committing vocabulary, verb conjugations, and pronunciations to memory. Children don’t have patience for that.
Then, they mature into adults who view French at best as some unattainable esoteric tongue and at worst a useless pretentious language. When it’s time for their children to study French, little positive reinforcement is provided. Immigrants are usually too preoccupied with survival English to make headway into French, and they imagine their children will have a similarly hard time with English alone. This perpetuates a cycle in Canada where the rate of English-French bilingualism outside of Québec (but including Ottawa and New Brunswick, officially bilingual regions), is under ten percent. I know few Canadians who speak French, even within both the yuppie and nerdy circles I spend my time with.
My relationship with the language has a similarly inauspicious start: I received a “C” in French when I was in the sixth grade, the first and only “C” that I’ve ever received in my entire academic career, panicking my parents. They had generally high expectations with regards to academic performance, and took this “C” seriously. French didn’t register on their radar too much before then; they knew I didn’t like the classes and didn’t perform well, but no alarm bells went off so long as I had a “B”. It took just a bit of yelling and a parent-teacher conference for me to get my act back together and continue receiving “B”s for the rest of my elementary French career.
During the summer of eighth grade, I attended an overnight summer camp in Québec, which was an experience. In my tent of fifteen, there was one other anglophone boy, and he spoke French much better than I did. It was the least enjoyable of all my overnight summer camp experiences. I spoke no more than five minutes of French a day, counting the hours until the week was over. But when I returned to school for what I had expected to be my last year of French, I found that I could understand the French teacher and that I had no issues following along with everything in class. In hindsight, this was likely half placebo: my educator friends have told me that ninth grade in every subject is grades one through eight crammed into one semester to catch students up. Regardless of the reason, for the first time in my life, I found French comprehensible.
So I bumbled along, staying in Enriched French courses in my high school for two years because they fit better into my schedule and all my friends were there. Despite my slovenly attitude about the language, my grades somehow hovered above 80, though I remained unsure how much I was actually retaining. Then, in my tenth grade summer, I participated in the YMCA Summer Work Student Exchange program, which sent me to work at an elderly home in Saint-Raphaël, a small town across the river and an hour east of Québec. Any confidence I had from high school fell away immediately as I realized that I, once again, had no idea what anyone was saying. But like the overnight camp, I received another boost of confidence when I returned back to school.
This pattern continued for two more summers and various programs, sending me to Jonquière and then Trois-Rivières. Each time, I felt lost, but became better at French each successive summer. From eighth grade to twelfth grade, I feel like I had traveled to more distinct places along the Saint-Laurent than most Quebeckers. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, I had learned the French language. Throughout my college years and then exchange in Paris, it has improved and decayed and then improved again.
The reason I go into my French learning journey is not solely because I’m proud of how far I’ve come, but also to highlight two things: how hard it is to learn a language within the confines of a classroom and how many resources there are to learn French in Canada. Everything after the first overnight camp, all of the other French exchange programs were free. Aside from some administration fees and the long bus rides to and from small-town Québec, all of the above mentioned trips were covered by taxpayers, and included room and board. I was even paid in two of them. Despite its horribly designed primary and secondary French education system, Canada expends significant resources to ensure that anglophones are given the opportunity to learn French if they so chose.
Even outside of these programs, there are the libraries that are filled with French books and news channels that are offered in French. On top of that, the mere presence of French on signage does so much more to contribute to vocabulary than one would imagine. To my anglo-Canadian readers, can you tell me what bluets are? What about croustilles? If you said blueberries and chips, you’d probably have answered better than the majority of French-speaking people from outside of Canada: most other francophones use myrtilles and chips to designate these terms. But you know it because you’ve seen it on every box of blueberries and every bag of chips you’ve ever purchased.
The impact of the French language on the English one also cannot be understated. Linguist Henriette Walter claims that as many as a two thirds of English vocabulary is of French origin, which I think might be a slight exaggeration, seeing as she is a professor of French at the Sorbonne. Nonetheless, an incredible number of English words have French roots, and of particular note are the more pretentious, especially with Latin roots. Sorry Orwell, but “ameliorate” and “quotidian” are some of my favourites. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of French will be able to tell what “moribund” and “deracinate” mean as well. Knowing French serves to improve English ability more than anyone would expect.
There are reasons abound to learn French: it is impressive, it can be useful in a career, it allows access to untranslated French books, movies, and music. But as a Canadian, there is more reason. Because it’s a national language of Canada, because there is significant Canadian culture in French, because it’s what separates us from the Americans. Break the cycle of monolingual anglophones in Canada, and reap the plentiful resources around you. Vive le français au canada!