American tourist language issues Quebec montreal

A rant from an American about French language issues in Quebec

A woman who vacationed in Montreal for two weeks in 2007 and seems curiously well-versed in local language dynamics offers some advice to Quebecers and the government.

The following rant from an American about French language issues in Quebec was sent to Cult MTL columnist Toula Drimonis.

Dear Ms. Drimonis,

My name is Charity Dell (former librarian and ESL teacher), and I am a language buff who enjoys learning languages and learning about their origins. 

I came across your article entitled “How to protect the French language without weaponizing it,” and after I discovered an archive that contained more of your articles, I decided to read “Love for other languages in Quebec isn’t hate for French” and the “Quebec and Bill 96: The Good, the bad and the ugly.” While I enjoyed your articles immensely, I was startled to realize that the English document you provided a link to really was 100 pages long, written in that Detailed Legalese that requires infinite patience — and 50 cups of iced mocha frappes — to wade through! Please feel free to grab your tea/coffee and plenty of snacks to fortify you as you read my slightly long RANT about language issues, which — in merciful contradistinction to Bill 96 — does not require 100 pages of legal text! (I respectfully beg your kind indulgence at this time.)

Once I read your articles, I was hooked on the sociolinguistic contexts and issues you raised. All your articles reminded me of my language vacation I took in July of 2007, when I rode the Greyhound bus up Interstate-87 to Quebec to study French at a Montreal school (I believe it was called Language Studies Canada) located on Rue Ste-Catherine in a shopping centre complex. Prior to attending classes, I had tried to educate myself on the French/English “Two Solitudes” thing and I tried to find a copy of Pierre Vallière’s classic Negres blancs d’Amérique in English translation. This triggered childhood memories of My Weekly Reader, which informed us American public school kids about Canada’s switch to the Maple leaf design when I was in fourth grade, and then about some guy named Pierre Elliot Trudeau who was doing all kinds of cool stuff to “modernize Canada.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my vacation in Montreal in 2007, attending four hours of French class in the morning, and just walking around the city in the afternoons, listening to the polyglot mix of locals and tourists like myself. I remember being absolutely overwhelmed by the varied accents and tone colours of French, spoken by francophone Africans, Europeans, Middle Easterners and the Québécois, whose “sing-song” delivery and open vowels fascinated me. My own instructor at the school was an Algerian of Berber origin, who was surprised, but not offended, when I inquired about his ethnic background. I had met a Malian musician on the long bus ride who carried a gleaming white kora — he invited me to his performance at the famed Club Ballatou during the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique. I attended Iba Diabaté’s concert there, and remembered feeling frustrated that my level of French was too low to pick up what he was singing in the song about “what my mother told me.” The killer band had four musicians — including a fabulous bassist from Cameroon — who were skillful and delightful to watch. I also liked the fact that the Club personnel were not trying to pressure you to buy drinks, letting you just relax to hear world-class musicians in a very intimate setting. 

Throughout the two weeks of my vacation, I had two other interesting conversations — one in a McGill University dormitory with a young woman from France; and another with an anglo Quebecer in a department store somewhere in downtown Montreal. The lovely Parisian Caroline was engaging, and expressed to me her dismay about Québécois French, because “here they MURDER the French!” I informed Caroline that she was not hearing Metropolitan French, but was hearing the descendent Colonial French of the 1500’s–1800’s, plus the First Nations languages intermixed with the colonial lexicon. She seemed startled and I concluded that French education left out information about the French language as spoken throughout la francophonie!

The other fascinating conversation I had was with the Nice White Canadian Lady (NWCL) who surprised me with this statement, as I hunted for little souvenir bargains in the department store.


This surprised me on many levels, including: 

A. The fact that she had not greeted me in either French or English, nor with the ubiquitous “Bonjour-Hi!” I heard in other stores and eateries;

B.  I am AFRICAN-AMERICAN and was a tourist;

C. Her assumption that I was CANADIAN at all — I am more accustomed to being seen as “other,” even in my own country;

D. And her shock when I smiled and told her that “I’m just an American tourist and my T-shirt is not a political statement.”

At this point, the NWCL scurried away in embarrassment and/or shock because she must have figured out that the Nice Black Tourist Lady from the United States (NBTLFTUS) had discerned the source of her discomfort: my white T-shirt with the word QUÉBEC on it, imprinted above an abstract rendition of the Québécois flag. I wish she had taken the time to engage me in conversation, because I really wonder why my kitschy T-shirt (which NO native of Quebec would have been caught dead in) evoked such a strong response. Did she assume I was a Black anglophone Canadian? Did she see me as one of the thousands of Black francophone citizens of la Belle Province? Did she assume I was a Black Québécoise? Maybe she thought I was a “sovereigniste” or “independentiste” who would answer her inquiry with “Je me souviens!” Did she believe that Black Canadians were not supposed to wear T-shirts specific to a province? I never again saw the Nice White Canadian Lady during my two weeks of vacation, so I never found out exactly what she was thinking, or why she felt the way she did.

This leads me back to your timely articles and the state of French and “language issues” of Quebec. I am still puzzled why so many francophones in both Quebec and France are convinced that the French language is in danger of disappearing from the earth. As an anglophone speaker visiting Quebec in 2007, the French language struck me as ROBUST and VIGOROUS, with a clearly defined life of its own, coloured with an array of sounds and accents drawn from the entire francophone world, literally ringing through the streets of Montreal through its international and domestic speakers. I know that immigration from France to Quebec has increased markedly in the last 10 years, with thousands of young professionals of France leaving the Hexagon to obtain better employment opportunities and a less socially rigid life in Quebec. These Hexagonal folks join the thousands of francophone Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Europeans and Asians who come to la Belle Province to study in all the universities — francophone and anglophone — of metropolitan Montreal, and attempt to make new lives for themselves and their families. From what I have read, it appears that the Hexagonal francophones are rapidly forming the “Third Solitude” as they are clashing with the Pure Laine folks of la Belle Province, who do not need their metropolitan “corrections” of la française québécoise!

I believe that francophones of Quebec cannot and do not hear how “FRENCH” Montreal really sounds — and looks — to anglophone and allophone  tourists who enjoy both the polyglot atmosphere AND “Frenchness” of the city in all its neighbourhoods. The cheerful multilingual shopkeepers and cashiers in Montreal and la ville de Québec always welcome you and accommodate you, whatever your linguistic handicap/preference is, and I certainly experienced this in a little “dollar store” that had Chinese proprietors and cashiers. When my friend who was shopping with me answered the cashier in Spanish, I admonished her to say “Merci” instead of “Gracias,” at which point the Chinese cashier told us en anglais: “Don’t worry, we speak Spanish, too! We lived in Guatemala for 14 years before we immigrated to Canada.” Then she smiled and calmly helped some other customers, speaking French to some and Chinese to others. I reflected that, within 10 minutes, the cashier had spoken four languages, seamlessly switching codes to accommodate her customers.

The visual impress of French is also striking, with those huge red and white ARRÊT signs on every street corner;  the cute DÉPANNEUR stores that correspond to the “bodegas” and convenience stores of New England and the Middle States; and even the francization of good old Kentucky Fried Chicken converted to  “Poulet Frit Kentucky.” Maybe citizens of Quebec are so accustomed to living in French, or bi-lingually, that they do not feel the overwhelming “Frenchness” that we foreign anglophones and/or allophones experience when visiting or touring la Belle Province.

To return to your articles, I believe your suggestion of making French instruction free and accessible to everyone in Quebec who lives there is both  practical and possible with adequate funding. The provincial government could, to borrow an American slogan, “solve everything with better marketing!”

It would be easy to expand the French “language market” of Quebec to include the CEGEPS as vendors of language instruction to tourists and foreign students. Those francophone students who have used English CEGEPS to improve their English skills — and polish them to professional levels — have the right idea. The French CEGEPS should be marketed as centres for French instruction, not only for Canadian high school students who need to polish their French skills to high academic levels, but also to the thousands of adult tourists who flock to Quebec for a more economical “foreign vacation” that is easily accessible from many countries, including those of us in the Lower 48 and Alaska. “Language vacation packages” can be coordinated through the local Chambers of Congress, and coordinated between airlines, transportation companies, and the local hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, to accommodate adult language learners who need to learn either French, English or any of Canada’s Indigenous/First Nations languages. The provincial higher education authorities should expand the curricula of both CEGEPS and universities to offer their major programs through a bilingual or trilingual model, as is already offered for business students at Montreal’s prestigious HAUTE ÉCOLE COMMERCIAL at the Université de Montréal, which permits students to integrate coursework studied in English, French and Spanish, the major languages of the North American continent Portuguese should also be an option for business/management majors, who will do business with Brazil and other Lusophone countries.)

The federal government could invest in Canada’s languages by making ALL public schools — pre-K through Grade 13 — adopt the European Union framework of “Native language plus two languages.” This can be done similar to the model of the United Nations International School in New York, which offers two-way dual immersion programs, PLUS and additional language. This makes sense for Canada’s citizens, who could also study Indigenous/First Nations languages, in addition to English and French. The advantages of dual/two way and triple/three way immersion are multiple, including the fact that students do not just study a language as a subject; they ALSO take core subjects through those languages, absorbing languages and speaking them on a daily basis, which improves communication skills. Public schools in Luxembourg do this in Letzebourgesch, French and German, the three languages of the nation. If all Canadian students could study two languages plus their native language from the pre-school level to the end of secondary school, then this would widen employment and educational opportunities for students across the spectrum of social classes in the Canadian nation. Parents would not have to pay outrageous fees for foreign/Native language instruction and immersion programs; and public school students would have universal access to at least three languages they need to study and work in all of Canada’s provinces. This scheme could be put to good use in Quebec, delivering high quality instruction to all public school students, who could then improve their language skills via the CEGEPS and universities.

Just my 25 cents worth of random thoughts on language issues in Quebec and the ROC! You may now return to your regularly scheduled life! 


Charity J. Dell

For the latest news updates, please visit the News section.