Linguistic (in)security, we have to talk about it…

Following the Education Summit (4-5-6th of May in 3 areas in Edmonton, Ottawa and Moncton), I allow myself to also talk about linguistic (in)security, since it was a hot topic presented by the youth representatives, and worthy of special attention.

Good French. Regional expressions. Franglais. Acadian. Chiac. Creole. Latin. Formal French. Colloquial French. Spoken French. Written French. Grammar. Number and gender agreement. Liaisons. Conjugations. Contextual language. Education. Correcting people. Feeling uncomfortable. Assimilation.

All these words have a common theme: linguistic (in)security. I have attended many meetings and assemblies and this seemed to be a recurring topic. How many people have we met who feel reluctant to speak French because they feel that their French isn’t good enough? Where does this happen? The answer: EVERYWHERE! It’s a social phenomenon that affects everyone in various ways: at home, at school, at college or university, in vocational training, at work, in regional and community activities, and so on. It’s this kind of thinking, or situations in which they feel ill at ease or uncomfortable, that drive Francophones to other languages, other causes, other institutions and services.

I’m sure that most Francophones in Ontario (or at least a majority of them) have had experiences where they’ve felt as if their French wasn’t good enough, or that their accent was “too pronounced.” Most of the time, they receive comments, mostly negative, from the people around them, which discourages them from communicating in French.

I put myself in the shoes of kids who, at school (including university and college) or at home, get told over and over: no, in French you pronounce it this way; or, no, that isn’t good French. They see it as a criticism.  We should let our kids express themselves freely as long as they do so in French. Take social media, for example, where contractions or icons are used. The message gets through; we understand what they mean! (Ok, it may take me sometime, since I often feel like I’m from the dinosaur era) Yes, as parents, we want our children to express themselves in good French. Let’s find the right time to say it, but with humour or discretion, and above all, let’s be creative. For example, send them a GIF!

This linguistic insecurity is experienced by another group as well: newcomers. Some of them come from countries where French is the common language, and some where French is the only mother-tongue of the citizens. As we all have accents, the newcomers to Canada and Ontario, do have different words to express themselves or get their message across, which can result in discomfort or miscommunication.

Regardless of where you come from, where you live, what level of language you use, or how well you know the language, we have to change our ways of thinking and especially of judging, and try to use creative tactics to encourage the people we know to speak French freely, even if there are errors in what they say. The language lives in various forms, dialects and accents, and it will continue to evolve in the future especially considering that French is the 5th most spoken language in the world, and it just keep growing. Let’s encourage our children, our co-workers and our friends to put aside their insecurity by making them feel good about speaking French as often as we can.

For the ministries and other government agencies, on the other hand, allow me to not be so tolerant… especially in writing!

Comments (3)

  1. Robert Talbot

    Thank you for this frank piece on what is a very important topic.

    Language insecurity is also a serious impediment to language retention for the approx. 1 million Anglophone Ontarians who have learned French (e.g. through French immersion). Even when opportunities to speak French arise, Anglophones are fearful of making a mistake, of feeling embarrassed, judged, corrected, or, worst of all, of having the polite and well intended bilingual Francophone with whom they are interacting switch completely to English.

    We need to shift the culture around speaking French in Ontario – it’s no big deal if you don’t speak perfect French. We don’t expect English-second language speakers to be perfect, so why do we expect it of French-second language speakers?

    We need to encourage Anglo-Ontarians who’ve had the polite switch pulled on them to say: “Est-ce correct si on continue en français? Ça me fera du bien!” I’ve done this before. The response was an awkward but pleasantly surprised “Oui, aucun problème.” Once we got over that initial hump of awkwardness by collectively deciding that the language of interaction would be French, everything went fine.

    This approach would benefit Francophones too – by encouraging Anglo-Ontarians to speak French more often, we foster an environment in which Franco-Ontarians have more opportunities to live in their language, and slowly chip away at the common assumption that English must be the language of default.

  2. François Boileau

    Thank you so very much MR Talbot for this awesome comment. There is no way I could have said it any better. I wholeheartedly agree with you and hopefully your comment will join many others in the years to come!

  3. Mary Cruden

    Commissioner Boileau, thank you for posting such a thoughtful article. And thank you M Talbot for your response on French language learners. Canadian Parents for French (on.cpf.ca & Frenchstreet.ca ) is encouraging young people to use their French in their daily lives – that means in school and in our communities. A positive vibe from interactions with ‘real, live’ Francophones is so important to developing the confidence to use the language. Encourage first, meet more than half way to facilitate communication in French and unless invited by the learner, leave the judgement of the skill level and corrections to their teachers. A simple ‘c’est merveilleux, tu parles français’ is what it takes to help any French language learner who is on the path to bilingualism!

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