Yara El-Soueidi: Protect French in Quebec? Cool! But let's face reality

Language changes to reflect its people and its history. Hence, there are little bits of English in our “parlure.” It’s part of who we are.

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When I was 15 and in Secondary 3, my French teacher in my very francophone private high school in Ahuntsic-Cartierville made us read Un Ange cornu avec des ailes de tôles and Les Belles-Soeurs, both Québécois classics from Michel Tremblay. For the class, it was a first introduction to joual, the spoken Québécois found in his work.

Decades ago, joual was considered an insult to the French language. It was the way the working class spoke! It was ugly, riddled with anglicisms and sounded guttural (well, at least according to André Laurendeau, the noted journalist, author, playwright, politician and nationalist activist and theorist of that era.)

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At school, we learned that Tremblay wanted to show the world how we, Québécois francophones, lived and sounded. He gave a voice to those deemed too unimportant to be heard. In contrast to Réjean Ducharme, whose L’Avalée des avalées was published around the same years, Tremblay used everyday language to depict what Quebec was and still is.

I’ve always loved Tremblay. To this day, I still can recite some parts of the Ode au Bingo from Les Belles-Soeurs and joke about Les z’Europes when a friend talks too much about a trip to any European country.

Because my teacher, Madame Lamarche, taught us these books, I fell in love with French. Hard. I find French, mostly Québécois French, beautiful. It is colourful and strong, and it changes to reflect its people and its history. Hence, there are little bits of English in our parlure. It’s part of who we are.

Last week, a video made the rounds in which Premier François Legault inadvertently used the word “cool” in remarks meant to vilify young Quebecers’ use of English words while speaking French. Though he laughed at himself, the innocent flub reflected something bigger: Our French is coloured by English. This is neither bad nor good; it is simply a fact that reflects Quebec’s rich history. Language changes and adapts to the current reality of things.

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As a francophone, I speak a franglais very assumé. My partner is an anglo-Québécois Loyola High School alumnus born in Florida to a Québécois mother and Finnish father. Our home is bilingual, shifting constantly between both official languages.

When I visit my mother-in-law, I speak to her in French about my latest readings and exchange ideas about books we’d like to read. My partner calls his maternal aunt “Matante.” My partner’s family is a true example of our province’s pure laines: descendants of French colonizers and of the Irish and Italian diaspora (as analyzed by ancestry.com). They are like most Québécois families I’ve known, a product of multiple cultures and languages.

Our political leaders’ obsession with trying to protect Quebec’s French heritage by prohibiting or restricting the use of English is, in my opinion, destined to fail. Restricting people’s access to an English-speaking education or to anglo-Québécois culture is doomed to push people further away from the French language. You do not keep a language alive by forcing people to adopt it. The problem is deeper than this.

When I read Tremblay for the first time, I understood Quebec. I understood where I came from and what I was a part of. Here it was in front of me how Québécois people lived and spoke their language. It was colourful and distinctive. It showed how they adapted their language to their reality, exactly how it is done today.

Our current reality is two communities finally coming as one. Continuing to feed the narrative of “les deux solitudes” is an excuse not to try to embrace our French Québécois language.

To protect a language, we must be open to what it really is. Otherwise, French will disappear because of our politicians’ obsession to keep it immutable.

Yara El-Soueidi is a writer and culture columnist based in Montreal.

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