“Pasta” on an Italian restaurant’s menu today could so easily lead to the extinction of an entire culture tomorrow. This unholy mingling of languages is, well, c’est trop!
(It should be noted that in the face of an explosion of international ridicule, the Quebec authorities have decided “pasta” can remain on restaurant menus.)
Stern disapproval of language violations is nothing new to French-speaking peoples. L’Académie française was set up in 1635 to protect the purity of the French language and has been fighting the battle since, although, unlike l’Office québécois de la langue française, it cannot call the gendarmes in if you get your conjugations wrong or slip in an anglicism or two.
Quebec’s heavyhandedness when it comes to language puzzles me — it seems to be an attitude born of paranoia and insecurity.
But I understand that it is important to preserve and protect languages. We are the poorer for having lost so many aboriginal languages, and are in danger of losing more. With 34 different languages and at least 60 dialects (depending on the definitions), B.C. is home to 60 per cent of Canada’s aboriginal languages, but many of those are spoken by only a handful of people, and some will be lost entirely when elders have passed on. Efforts to preserve Vancouver Island languages are underway, and I hope they succeed.
Language is more than words — it is so closely linked to culture and history that when we lose a language, we lose a unique perspective, another way of viewing the world, a more subtle understanding of emotions.
But I don’t think French is in imminent danger of disappearing. Change, yes; extinction, no. But language should change. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have English, which, for all its quirks and foibles, is so rich and expressive specifically because it never hesitated to borrow from other languages.
And while I believe Quebec’s approach to language is xenophobic and undemocratic, I’m a firm believer in Canada’s bilingualism. I only wish I were better at it.
Growing up in western Canada, I heard German, Danish and Hungarian before I ever heard French. Oh, I studied the cereal boxes thoroughly, but there were few opportunities to use “flocons de maïs” and “pour ouvrir, coupez ici,” especially since I didn’t know how to pronounce them.
Initial French classes at school were taught by a teacher who had learned French during the summer. We subsequently studied under a fluently bilingual teacher, but still had no opportunities for conversation, except among ourselves.
“Regardez les beaux oiseaux,” we would say every time we saw robins or goldfinches, so it was a seasonal sort of thing.
I still try that one occasionally when hiking with my bilingual grandchildren. They are usually laughing so hard at my bad accent, they miss seeing the beautiful birds.
During a French-only tour of the Parliament buildings, I was taking a photo of magnificent stone pillars when the Québécois man beside me asked how I could get the photo when he couldn’t. His English and my French were comparable and I didn’t know enough words to explain, but since his camera was the same model as mine, I put my lens on his camera, and he happily took the photo.
His wife wasn’t sure what was going on.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she kept asking.
“C’est un objectif wide-angle,” he explained.
Apparently, l’Office québécois de la langue française still has some work to do.
While both of us had obvious language limitations, it didn’t matter. Each of us had tried to communicate in the other’s language and a bridge was built. It was a pleasant encounter.
Canada is officially bilingual, but in reality, it is multilingual. That presents occasional problems and awkward moments, but overall, we’re the richer for it.
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