Two dialects, two kids at home: a story from a sociolinguist dad (by Dr. Davy Bigot)

This week’s guest blogger, sociolinguist Dr. Davy Bigot, reaches out to BILD from the Département d’études françaises à l’université Concordia, where he brings a European French speaker’s perspective to the study of Quebec French. As he tells us, a fascination for the differences between the two varieties of French has occupied his personal as well as his professional life.

I discovered sociolinguistics 20 years ago. I was about to finish my BA in English Studies at Tours, in France. One of my last courses had this strange title which I no longer recall… It wasn’t “Sociolinguistics 100”, but more like “Language and society.” I had already had basic courses in English phonology, phonetics and syntax. I was not really into linguistics at that time. I remember that Professor Régis, who later became my Master’s thesis supervisor, said, at the end of the first course, something like “If anyone is interested in writing a master’s thesis in sociolinguistics about Star Wars, just tell me!” I thought he was joking… He wasn’t. To make a long story short, I wrote my thesis about “Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace”, and this changed my life.

I’ve been living in Quebec for almost 15 years. Nine years ago, I started my career as a professor at the Département d’études françaises at Concordia University, where I teach and work as a sociolinguist. At the same time, my wife and I had our first son, Noam (no kidding… But in French it’s pronounced No-Am!). Then, 4 years later, my second son was born, Éloi (my wife and I really thought about naming him William… Again, no kidding…). As you’ve already guessed, I am French. But my wife, she’s a Québécoise (I don’t know why, but “Quebecer” doesn’t feel right to me…). Born in Montreal, she speaks with a Quebecois accent. Her accent isn’t very strong, but it is different from mine. Of course, when we are at home, neither one of us cares about the way we speak to our kids. I mostly speak French from France, and she mostly speaks Quebecois French. I write “mostly”, because after more than 15 years of living together, we of course borrow linguistics variants from each other (she says I swear like a Quebecois when I watch the Habs on TV). Of course, my kids also borrow variants from Quebecois French and French French (I mean French from France). But for a long time, they really spoke like native bilingual speakers, as if they had two separate grammars: one in Quebecois French, the other in French French.

My kids didn’t go to daycare. We decided it would be better for them to stay home and be raised by their grandparents (my wife’s parents, of course). And that’s how they both started to develop their grammars. Like native bilingual speakers, they could easily talk to me with a French accent, and then automatically switch to Quebecois when talking to their mother and grandparents. For instance, they would pronounce “maman” [mæ̃mæ̃] (as in Quebecois) instead of [mamɑ̃] (in Hexagonal French), but “papa” [papa] as in Hexagonal French, instead of [pɔpɑ] (in Quebecois French). When we visit my parents in France, they talk pretty well like any French kid when speaking with my family, but again, they switch to Quebecois when speaking to their mother. Fascinating, right? Well… it really is to me. One thing they didn’t do was to diphthongize vowels, like pronouncing ‘mère’ as [maiʀ], as many Quebecois do, as neither my wife, nor my in-laws, nor I, of course, do that… Another thing they didn’t do was saying “J’vas” [jvɑ] (as in informal Quebecois French). Again, because my wife and I both say “j’vais” [jvɛ] instead. But as they grew up and started to socialize at school, things started to change.

Noam is now in fourth grade and Éloi is in first grade. They spend their time mostly with friends and other kids. Most of them are Quebecois, from different social classes, with their own idiolect. Of course, my kids want to be like their friends. And guess what? They now diphthongize. Both of them pronounce “classe” [klɑʊs] while my wife and I pronounce [klas]. They also both say “j’vas” instead of “j’vais”. While Éloi still doesn’t do it systematically, Noam has integrated the assibilation of /t/ and /d/ in front of /i/, /y/ and their associated semivowels, one of the typical features of the Quebecois accent. The funny thing is that while their accent tends to be more Quebecois than French, their vocabulary remains pretty much French, even slang French sometimes. They both say “Salut mec!” (for “Hey dude!”) while Quebecois usually say “Salut mon chum!”. I even heard two of Noam’s Quebecois “pure laine” friends now borrowing “Salut mec!”. True story! Last week, Noam was playing video games with his friends and I heard him say “Attends! Je prends ma bagnole!”. “Bagnole” is typical slang French for “car”, its equivalent being “char”, in Quebecois French.

Usually, there’s no problem. But last Fall, Noam went back to school and told me one of the kids said something like “You know, we speak Quebecois, here. You aren’t in France!”. I was really surprised that a 9-year old kid could argue like this. No need to wonder what that kid hears at home… Anyway… My kid just replied: “Well, I’m both French and Quebecois. I have the right to speak the way I want, so get over it!”. I was so proud of him. But this kind of anecdote shows how we, adults and parents, really have to be careful about what we may say in front of our children, because this may create discriminatory attitudes.

Kids are the future. I do enjoy watching and listening to them playing together in French, borrowing words from different languages (English, Spanish, Arabic…). Is it perhaps because I’m a sociolinguist? Or is it just that it gives me hope for the generations to come? Well… I like thinking it’s because of both.

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