Ni francophone, ni francophile (by Dr Susan Ballinger)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

A few years ago, I was attending a conference run by L’Association canadienne des professionnels de l’immersion (ACPI). It was an excellent conference. The quality of the workshops was high, it was extremely well organized, and everyone had a great time at the events. I would recommend the ACPI conferences to any French immersion teacher or administrator, and I have great respect for all of the fantastic projects run by the hard-working people at ACPI. That conference also helped me to understand why I’ve never fully fit under that organization’s umbrella despite the fact that one of my main areas of research and work is immersion teacher education. The light bulb went off when, in one of the opening talks, the since-deceased historian, Serge Bouchard, greeted the ACPI crowd as ‘francophones et francophiles.’ I looked out at the room, and everyone smiled back at him, many nodding enthusiastically. But I couldn’t relate to either of those labels.

I learned French as an immigrant to a French-speaking province because I needed it, and I wanted it. I wanted to make friends, to fit in, to understand what was going on around me, to avoid the eye rolls when I didn’t know the difference between velouté and corsé at the cafes, to be employed because I was broke. Newly married to a francophone from Marieville, I wanted to be able to communicate with my in-laws, few of whom spoke English. I wanted to be a daughter, a sister, and an aunt who did more than smile and nod at family get-togethers. I was lonely and hungry in my new home, and I was very motivated to learn.

When I arrived here from the U.S. on July 4, 2001, I especially wanted to communicate with those in-laws who welcomed me with love and acceptance. My belle-mère, Gaetane, was the youngest of 16 children and had grown up on a farm in Rimouski. She cut her family’s hair as a kid and continued dressing hair in Montreal and later in Drummondville up until her death this year. Like any good hair dresser, she loved to talk and to listen. She patiently listened to my slow and broken sentences in French, because she wanted to know me, and I think she genuinely liked me. She gave me that impression because all of her sentences began or ended in a term of endearment. I was her bru, her cocotte, her chouette, her petite puce, her belle, her minoune. To be fair, everyone else was also her coco, her petit loup, her pitchounette, because the lady was cent pour cents love packaged into a 5’1” frame.

I’ve seen my belle-soeur, Isabelle, experience tragedy and reinvent herself several times while managing to keep her spirit and sense of humor intact. She taught me French by patiently wading through my self-consciously halting syntax in the early years to get to my meaning. She laughed at my dumb jokes. More recently, she has borne my miserable second language attempts at comforting her during unimaginable loss by simply hugging me tighter. My nieces, Ariane and Sandrine, were 5 and 3 years old when I became their aunt. There is a picture from that time of a 5-year-old Ariane and a (much younger) me holding hands, heads thrown back laughing. Being able to be part of their lives was how and why I learned French. I’ve been legally divorced from that family for almost 10 years now, and we’ve since lost Ariane and Gaetane, but I will always love them, and that is part of my identity as a French speaker.

Despite the fact that the pandemic has kept me mostly bound to an English- and Japanese-speaking home, French remains part of my daily life. Netflix has recently included more Québécois films, and I’ve been re-watching some old ones and discovering Ricardo Trogi’s trilogy (1981, 1987, and 1991). I am fluent in Elvis Gratton. I watched “Le Bye Bye” on New Year’s Eve with my kids (and didn’t completely regret it). I teach university courses in French. My kids attend French schools. I have used French with nurses and doctors while giving birth. Once, when a car hit me head on while I was cycling, sending my helmetless head through the car’s windshield and somehow breaking my ankle, my first instinct was to argue with the driver in French about who was at fault. I have rules for myself about how and when I use French in this bilingual city, and French has gotten me jobs, helped me understand different perspectives, make friends. In fact, I’ve lived in Québec far longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and when I return from traveling, I feel that I am home. That is saying a lot for a kid who moved every couple of years growing up. My love for Québec and the Québécois may be complicated, but it is deep and it is definitely also part of my identity as a French speaker.

That still doesn’t make me a Francophile. According to Google Arts and Culture, “A Francophile, also known as Gallophile, is a person who has a strong affinity towards any or all of the French language, French history, French culture or French people.” It also implies that one views the French language and culture as superior to others. While I love language, and French is one of the most important languages in my life, I am not in love with it. For those living in English-dominant parts of Canada where French isn’t a tool for daily life but a subject of study, it may take that extra, language-specific love to become bilingual. In Quebec, however, being someone who views French language and culture as superior to others takes on a different meaning.

About five years ago, I saw Françoise Armand from L’Université de Montréal speak about the work she and her group, ÉLODiL, do with éveil aux langues (language awareness), an approach which aims to bring multilingual learners’ languages into French Montreal classrooms. Because English dominance in North America poses a threat to the survival of French in Quebec, someone in the crowd inevitably asked Dr. Armand what the teachers do when a child’s first language is English. Do they also include English as a classroom language? Wouldn’t that trigger an avalanche of English speaking in the classes? Dr. Armand replied that the teachers simply place English alongside the other languages so that it receives the same treatment and importance. No language or culture should be placed on a pedestal. Not even French.

For many years, I saw Quebec’s default French language-of-instruction policy (Bill 101)[1] as a necessary evil. Yes. It is weird and frustrating as an English-speaking immigrant to not be able to enroll my own children in the English school system here. But the policy has worked over the years to maintain French amidst an ocean of English in North America, so what can you do, right? However, my undergraduate students have shown me that the policy could use a little dusting off, a little 21st century glow-up. Many of those students have grown up in Quebec as first- or second-generation immigrants. Having gone through the French school system, they are proficient, and usually proud, French speakers. But they are also bi/multilingual. They speak multiple languages at home (often including English and/or French) or come from English-French bilingual homes. In discussions of Bill 101, they almost unanimously support having legislation to maintain use of the French language in Quebec, but they constantly ask questions like:

Couldn’t it be more flexible?

Does it really have to be at the expense of other languages? Why is French more important?

Is it necessary to red-card bi/multilingual kids for speaking a language other than French in school hallways?

Do teachers really have to denigrate the use of non-standard French?

Isn’t it kind of a human rights violation to put Grade One students in a time-out for using English at school? (actually, that was my question after it happened at my kid’s school)

Many of my students explained that these policies were exactly why they chose to attend English university and to become English second language teachers. In other words, in fighting for their tongue, Quebec’s language policy excluded their hearts and minds. It drove them away. In making Standard French into a museum piece that cannot be tarnished by errors, accents, varieties, imported words, neologisms, old anglicismes, or the inevitable and ongoing change that all languages experience, the language becomes an exclusionary device and a constant reminder of the speaker’s own shortcomings. Everyone must shift towards French, but only a few can be considered legitimate French speakers. Where’s the fun in that? Where is the incentive to learn it and to use it even when you don’t have to?

I suppose all of this is just to say that it came as a surprise to hear these same ideologies of belonging (you have to either be born a native speaker or be devoted French lover) at a conference for second language teachers. At that keynote, I couldn’t help questioning the talk about ‘preserving’ the French language as if it were something pickled in formaldehyde. Like my students, I wondered if there wasn’t a way to fling open the windows and doors on French language ideologies, to let this living language breathe a little and to let all of its speakers in. According to The Oxford Language Dictionary, the definition of ‘Francophone’ is simply ‘speaker of French.’ With those doors flung open, perhaps those of us who speak French as a second, third, or fourth language could also be allowed to call ourselves ‘Francophones.’

Susan Ballinger, new Canadian citizen

[1] Bill 101 regulates French as the common public language in Quebec. Part of the legislation includes limiting access to English schools to children who have at least one parent who has attended English school in Canada. Therefore, the French school system is the default school system for everyone, and few immigrants to the province can access the English school system. It is important to note that French immersion is a program that is only offered in English schools in the province. There is no equivalent language immersion program in the French school system because French is the only legislated language of instruction in those schools. As an extension of this legislation, many French language schools have French-only school policies that prohibit students from speaking other languages inside and outside of the classroom.

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