From language learner to language speaker: An impossible task? (by John Wayne N. dela Cruz)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a pattern I’ve been noticing—but low-key ignoring—in my daily linguistic interactions with some Montrealers. That is, for some reason, my interactions would almost always start in French, but will never end in French. Instead, such interactions would typically switch into English within 5 seconds.

But I suppose it’s not just “for some reason”. Flores and Rosa (2015; Rosa & Flores, 2017) coined a phrase to describe what I’m talking about here—raciolinguistic ideologies. Raciolinguistic ideologies explain the co-construction of language and race, which help reveal how language users associate certain speech acts to specific racial categories. Looking through this lens, I argue that the reason for why my typical language encounters start in French but continue and end in English is due to the raciolinguistic assumptions that inhabit the contexts in which I use my languages with others.

To give you an example, here’s a poem I wrote, inspired from a recent real-life incident at a store in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). I took some creative license to edit the conversations a bit to fit the poem and edit out miscellaneous or identifiable details, while still retaining the gist of what happened. I also added, in italics, the thoughts that were running through my mind during this incident, as well as those that ran through my mind as I was writing about this experience.


Bonjour, Hi! But I say ‘bonjour’, and you say ‘hi’

Bonjour, Hi! Puis-je vous aider?

Salut! Ça va bien? Oui, en fait j’ai une question—

Oui ça va… Oh, yes, how can I help?

Euh, oui, c’est…

Of course, let me see what I can do for you, just give me a moment…

Hmm, a moment. I wonder when will mine be? Will there ever be a moment when I become a French language speaker? 

My colleague will be right with you in a second.

Or will I only ever be the imperfect French language learner?

Oh, pas de trouble. :)

Well actually, c’est troublant. Cuz what gave it away? Mon accent non-Québécois? The standardized grammar I was only ever taught?

Is it my skin tone? Am I not supposed to be speaking French?

But why are you gagging so? (See also, ‘stunned’, ‘surprised’)
Isn’t it the government’s law?

Salut, oui, alors mon collègue m’a dit que…

Oui! Je suis là pour une réparation, merci. :)

Oh right!

Sounds about… white…

It’s for John, is that right?

It’s not right, but it’s okay, or so said Whitney…

Oui, c’est—Yes, that’s right. I’m John.

I’m John, theallophone’. The French learner immigrant, not the French speaker Montrealer.

Bonjour, hi. I get to learn bonjour, but stick to saying hi.

Le sigh.


Often when I share my thoughts like the ones above with others, they are quick to dismiss it with a, “oh it’s just Montreal and Montrealers. We switch all the time!” Or, “people just wanna practice their French, you know!”. It’s just, according to them, the typical ‘Montréal switch’ (see also Godfrey-Smith, 2015).

Sure. But no. (Thank you, next!).

While I don’t want to dismiss the agency of my fellow plurilingual language users in Montréal—or elsewhere for that matter—to self-determine the languages in which they would want to express themselves with me (as Godfrey-Smith, 2015 explores in her autoethnography surrounding the ‘Montréal switch’), I also wouldn’t want to minimize the often inequitable power dynamics between racialized allophones (e.g., me speaking French) and white first language speakers (e.g., white Francophones in Québec) when it comes to whose agency is prioritized when deciding—and enforcing—the language of communication (or what Flores & Rosa, 2015, and Rosa & Flores, 2017 describe as the white listening subjects’ hegemonic perceptions of racialized subjects’ language practices).

It’s one thing to fluidly translanguage—or switch and mix languages—with others, or to want to practice a second language with a perceived first language speaker of said language (i.e., Montréal switch). But it’s another to speak to my white, francophone companions in French in front of me, with whom I was just speaking French, and then to turn to me, a racialized allophone, and switch to English (i.e., raciolinguistic ideologies). Ça fait (😉) pas du sens!

Whether intended or not, experiences like mine are informed by explicit and implicit raciolinguistic ideologies that inhabit our language choices and communicative behaviours. And as harmless as the intentions were of the store clerks in my poem, that quick, not even 10-minute interaction we had, from where I stood, nonetheless delegitimized my identity and competence as a racialized French language user.

In my past posts for this blog, I’ve written about native speakerism in teacher hiring practices in ELT (English Language Teaching), in writing instruction in ESL (English as a Second Language), and in different social contexts including schools and the workplace. Thinking about it now, many of those posts also had to do with raciolinguistic ideologies. In this post, I continue to invite our blog readers (i.e., my fellow language teachers, learners, researchers, and/or users) to keep interrogating the taken-for-granted linguistic realities that many racialized plurilingual speakers live, feel, and experience. For one, we can start by asking, which types of additional language learners get to be perceived as competent in, thereby legitimately embodying, certain languages (i.e., official ones)?


Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–171.

Godfrey-Smith, L. (2015). Reconciling language anxiety and the ‘Montréal switch’: An autoethnography of learning French in Montréal and negotiating my Canadian identity through language. Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education/Revue canadienne des jeunes chercheures et chercheurs en education, 6(2), 9–15.

Rosa, J., & Flores, N. (2017). Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Language in Society, 46(5), 621–647.

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