Post-Immersion Reflection

After spending six weeks in Montreal doing intensive coursework in French, and making my way through daily life communicating in my second language, I’ve realized that language learning constitutes a far more intuitive process than I had realized before my stint in Canada.  It also made me reflect more on my use of languages in general.  When I communicate in English, my first language, I typically do not devote much energy to the use of tenses, or how I relay complex ideas.  My spoken English, in other words, is lazy.  When speaking in French, however, I spent a great deal of time contemplating what tense, or what turn of phrase would most convey in the most accurate manner what I wanted to communicate.  I found speaking French in a precise way challenging.  Consequently, I now also give more thought to my English-language delivery, reflecting more (when I can) on what words I use, or how I string together phrases to best articulate ideas.  Even subtle differences can produce a world of new meanings.  While I had not anticipated this going into my intensive immersion, I realize now that these skills will help me not only in my pursuit of French fluency, but also as I write my dissertation.

The complexity of language, as well as the ways in which others use their native language, taught me to appreciate language as a facet of culture.  While many think of culture as the arts, music, food, etc., I found that observing (especially bilingual) people operate in two different languages fascinating, as it exposed the cultural differences between Anglophone Canada and Francophone Canada.  Describing the same thing in each language recalls different histories, different cultural assumptions, and different connotations which make Quebec a fascinating place to study the French language.  I would encourage anyone who wants to study a foreign language to pay special attention not just to how people go about their daily lives in their host country, but also how they describe their quotidian experiences, as it can reveal a good deal about how they think about the world, or what they find important, or most interesting for me, their history and the historical assumptions implicit in their day to day lives.

For me, I will use this knowledge, both linguistic and cultural, to continue my research for my dissertation.  I will return to Montreal in the fall of 2016 for the entire academic year to research and write, and where I will continue to expose myself to the Quebecois culture and language.  Having the six weeks of immersion during the summer will help me to jump straight into my work with my mental toolkit already prepared, and I hope, of course, to continue to speak French and refining my skills in the language!Fontenot 3

The Peculiar French of Quebec

Montreal sports the second largest French-speaking population of any city besides Paris.  Yet the French spoken by natives of Quebec differs markedly from standard French.  Residents of Quebec have noticeable accents; so strong that in some cases those from France itself have trouble deciphering the local accent and patois.  Quebecois films often sport two sets of French subtitles: Quebecois French, and the translation into standard French.

For many Quebecois, these differences add to the complexity of their relationship with language, compounding the already contentious relationship with their English-speaking neighbors and creating a sort of double inferiority complex when it comes to language.  As the minority language within Canada, Quebec’s defenders of the French language have taken a militant stance towards maintaining the integrity of the French language and prevent the encroachment of English into daily life.  This has often been an uphill battle, especially with English necessary to travel and work outside the province of Quebec.  Add to that the idea that Quebecois French represents a deviation of the norm from standard French, and one can understand why some Quebecois adopt a defensive stance toward their language.

In some cases, Quebecois French and standard French differ little.  Quebecois French tends to collapse words together, relying more on contractions than would regular French.  Quebecois French speakers also tend to speak more from the back of the mouth than from the front, as would a speaker trained in standard, international French.  The Quebecois, as one native French woman told me, “swallow their words.”

Quebecois vocabulary also differs substantially from French proper.  In formal language, Quebecois French borrows fewer new words from English, as does French proper, preferring instead to come up with neologisms to avoid capitulating to the historical power hierarchy of English in Quebec.  France, with no history of English rule, lacks the same source of hesitancy.  Quebec French, as a testament of Quebec’s long separation from France, also tends to use older forms of French more relevant in the eighteenth and seventeenth century than the twentieth to twenty-first century.  Many obscenities and profanities in Quebecois French draw from the language of the Catholic Church, or relate to particular religious themes, a holdover from pre-Revolutionary French society, where the Church had far more influence in day-to-day life.

In the area around Montreal, one can find a number of speakers of the joual, one of the most distinctive dialects of Quebecois French. Most particularly associated with the working-class suburbs of Montreal, some deride the language as an uneducated corruption of proper French, while others have celebrated it as a symbol of a distinctive national identity.  Speakers of standard French have great difficulty in understanding this form of French, insofar as its speakers have heavy accents, and often use contractions and pronunciations unrecognizable in standard French, as well as non-standard word order and sentence structure.

The presence of the many varieties of French in Quebec, as well as the historical nature of the language, make it a fascinating linguistic study, especially for anyone interested in history.  Paying close attention to the way that the Quebecois language functions, as well as the terms that it uses provide insight into the historical evolution of language, as well as hos the province’s history has influenced the way in which its residents communicate.  It also serves as a constant reminder of how distinct Quebec remains within both Canada, as well as the francophone world.  Small wonder, perhaps, that many Quebecois have strong opinions about language.

The Civic Pride of Montreal

For only a fraction of the year can one tolerate the outdoors in Montreal.  The winter presents a forbidding obstacle to Montrealers enjoying their many public spaces. Needless to say, Montreal packs the summer full of events to take advantage of the brief time during the year when one couldn’t plausibly mistake the streets of Montreal for the Siberian wilderness.  Montreal’s civic pride comes to the forefront during these summer celebrations.  Montrealers exhibit a fierce pride in their city, on full display throughout the summer months.  Deterred only by the omnipresent road construction during the summer months, Montreal makes the most of their warm weather and the amenities that their city has to offer.

The eponymous Mont Royal dominates the center of Montreal, barring travel across the island, but also offering stunning views of all parts of the city.  An outcrop on the mountain facing the southeast sports one of the city’s most stunning views of downtown Montreal.  Here, on the lookout overlooking downtown, the city sponsors a series of evening concerts of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  These performances, casual affairs, are dedicated to the city itself and draw huge crowds.  The large crowds testify to the civic spirt of Montrealers: the Kondiaronk Belvadere, where the concerts take place, sits near the top of the tallest peak of Mount Royal, a climb of about seven hundred feet.  For those unwilling or unable to make the climb, the city provided public busses to shuttle concert-goers there and back.  By the time the concert started, several hundred people had gathered to hear the orchestra, despite the heavy winds and the chance of rain that evening.

Venture down the slope of Mount Royal, through downtown, and one will find themselves in the Quartier des Spetacles.  During the summer, this part of the city plays host to a great number of festivals, including notably the Montreal International Jazz Festival near the Place des Arts.  This space, a massive pedestrian zone located off of the Rue Ste-Catherine, serves as a hub for Montreal’s cultural scene during the summers.  Montrealers gather here throughout the day to dine, socialize, listen to music, and have coffee.  Faced with the prospect of a long and cold winter characterized by short days and long nights, it should come as little surprise that the residents of the city find joy in escaping the indoors during the summer, even if the temperatures sometimes soar into the eighties and nineties Fahrenheit.

Once the temperature cools down in the evening, a short ride down the Orange Line of the metro will bring one from downtown to Parc Jarry, one of the larger urban parks of Montreal.  On summer evenings with good weather, residents of Montreal flock in droves to the park to enjoy dinner with friends and family, to socialize, to gather and play music, or to do whatever strikes them.  Perhaps the most striking about this scene, however, is the number of people who venture out to the park, as well as all of Montreal’s public spaces.  People appear happy to venture out and about; the very act of doing so seems to demonstrate their pride in the city.  Being out in the city’s public spaces allows them to appreciate the city more fully; more so than just living in Montreal, the city’s public spaces and public functions and festivals allow Montrealers to revel in their city in the company of others who feel the same way.IMG_6113

The US From North of the Border

Canadians have a unique perspective on the United States. In terms of culture, they differ little from their neighbors to the south.  Most Canadians, in fact, live within several hundred miles of the United States border.  Walking through Montreal, one would feel hard-pressed to imagine themselves not in an American city except for the prevalence of French on signs and in the voices of passersby.  All the Canadians who I spoke with, however, found my line of questioning about Canadians’ views of Americans absurd at worst, and entertaining at best. Little, in their opinion, separates Canada from the United States.  With a few exceptions, most would have felt perfectly at home moving to the United States.  That being said, however, a few matters do stand out.

Speaking with a young woman around 25 years old, she lamented the crass nature of many Americans.  “They are friendly enough,” she relayed, “but often come to Montreal surprised to learn that, you know, we actually speak French here.”  Americans come to the province of Quebec, she surmised, expecting to experience a sort of “Disney World” encounter with French: a few quaint street signs here and there with French words, perhaps substituting “Bonjour” for “hello” in their greetings.  Many (not all) Americans travelling here quickly learn that French constitutes the language of business, and English is not privileged, but rather accommodated when possible.  Later in the same week that I spoke with this young woman, I out for dinner with a friend. We sat next to an American couple who seemed befuddled by the fact that the server (who, to their benefit, spoke very capable English), would not accept American cash in lieu of Canadian dollars.  The point about the “Disney” experience hit home at that dinner: these “peculiarities” of Canada are viewed by many Americans as none of their business, and expect to be treated as if in the United States even while in Montreal.

Of course, no Canadian I spoke with about their opinions of the United States could go long without commenting on the presidential election in the United States.  Their reactions ranged from entertained to downright frightened by the prospects of the election.  One man who I spoke with, a 50-something-year-old businessman, spoke gleefully about the election.  “I’ve never seen better material from Stephen Colbert and the other late night talk show hosts…this is great stuff, I mean, I feel bad for you as Americans, but thanks for providing us with endless entertainment!”  His partner asked me in a much more somber tone about the state of politics in the United States.  She expressed difficulty in comprehending the arcane structure of the presidential primaries, and once explained, confusion over why no uniform system exists across the states.  Even in Canada’s federal system, where the provinces typically have more powers than the American states, she noted, elections at the national level are uniform across all of Canada.  Both of my hosts for that evening also expressed surprise at the disparity in importance of each of the states in the presidential competition.  They thought it odd that certain states should matter more than others, or why some votes in some states mattered more than others.

Everyone whom I spoke with, however, shared the sentiment of Americans as neighbors.  Like any neighbors, Americans have their quirks, and approach their problems in their own way, and sometimes have parties that get a bit loud and out of hand.  But at the end of the day, the differences can easily be overcome to establish a respect, if sometimes grudging, for each other.

Canada’s Greatest Invention: Poutine

In 2007, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a special mini-series counting down the top fifty Canadian inventions. The CBC asked Canadians to vote on which invention they thought the greatest. Following innovations such as insulin and the pacemaker, the ubiquitous Quebecois dish, poutine, received the tenth highest number of votes. Poutine beat out such other inventions like the programming language Java and the electron microscope. Throughout Canada, one can find this dish served in any number of restaurants—one would almost be remiss to not have some variety of it on their menu in Quebec. Poutine serves as a point of pride for many Canadians

Poutine comes in a great number of varieties—indeed, its versatility in part accounts for its popularity. At the most basic level, it consists of three ingredients: French fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. One can find poutine in this form almost anywhere. Restaurants, street vendors, sports stadiums, etc. all hawk this fare year-round. In this form, the key to good poutine is in the gravy. Gravy, according to most whom I spoke with, can turn mediocre French fries into a delight; bad gravy can ruin even the best gourmet fries. The simplicity of the recipe and the ingredients also allows for a number of different takes on the dish: one restaurant in Montreal allows its guests to customize the type of French fries, the type of cheese, gravy, and add a variety of different meats, vegetables, and other toppings.

As many explanations for the etymology of the term “poutine” exist as do varieties of poutine one can find in Montreal. Other dishes called “poutine” have existed in Canada, especially in Quebec and the French-speaking parts of the Maritime Provinces, since the early nineteenth century. It remains unclear how the term became associated with the dish today. Some credit the English-word “pudding,” in a number of connotations, as the origin of “poutine.” One person with whom I spoke suggested that it arose from the English phrase “put it in.” According to that story, the birth of the dish poutine arose from a restaurateur’s attempt to rid himself of several leftover food items by “putting them all in” a single dish and serving it. Other sources, however, note the similarity of the word to various food-related words in historical regional dialects of French. The term then could have come across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century with settlers who came from various parts of France.

No matter the origins of the name, poutine remains a tremendously popular dish in Quebec, and has recently began to spread throughout the world. Part of its popularity comes from the simplicity the recipe. The ease with which one can modify it to give it different flavors make it a versatile addition to any meal. The ingredients themselves—the French fries, the gravy, and the cheese curds—can be catered to please the palate of a high-brow gastronome or satisfy the late night hunger of a poor college student. This, along with the pride of origin, has made poutine a cherished dish in Quebec and Canada.


Last night, I took the Metro to the east side of Montreal. After a hiccup with my connection, I finally arrived at the Villa Maria station, where I began the short walk up the western slopes of Mount Royal to meet with two Canadians. After a while, the conversation drifted to my research for my dissertation. After I explained my interests, one of my hosts asked if I had done any work at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, or BAnQ. I explained that I had not yet done any work there, but I hoped to spend a good deal of time there in the upcoming semester to explore their holdings. My host, who had some familiarity with the institution, had some advice for me.

“Don’t risk blowing your first impression with them,” he warned me. “Make sure that you address the first person you see in French, even if you bungle your French. With any luck you’ll make it through and they’ll be able to help you. Or else maybe they’ll speak English, or find someone who speaks English if they can’t help. In any case, you don’t want to start off by speaking English. You can’t risk putting them off like that in case they decide they don’t want to prioritize helping you. And if you stay around here, definitely don’t tell them that, even if you can converse with them in French.”

His advice to me stemmed from one of the more contentious aspects of Quebec’s culture and society: the uneasy tension between the Francophone and Anglophone communities in the Province of Quebec. I sat down with my hosts in the town of Westmount; technically part of the city of Montreal, but legally distinct from the municipal government. In 2002, the community of Westmount had, after a bitter struggle, been merged into the city of Montreal. Opponents of the merger had claimed that Westmount had a special status as an Anglophone enclave and therefore should not be merged into the Francophone city of Montreal. But in 2004, after the government had changed, the town voted to remove itself from the municipality of Montreal. After the vote to demerge, Montrealers remained bitter about the primarily Anglophone community’s seeming contempt for their Francophone neighbors. The conflict over language in this case also masked other socio-economic tensions. The area encompassed by Westmount encompasses some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Montreal–and historically some of the most affluent in all of Canada. Their departure from Montreal entailed a substantial loss of tax revenue for the city. But the conflict played out in terms of linguistic divisions.

The cultural divide between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec extends far back in Canada’s history. After the British conquest of New France, which included the territory of Quebec, in 1763, a small contingent of Anglophone merchants and settlers began to trickle into the French-speaking region around Quebec. After the American Revolution, the trickle turned into a flood as Loyalists fleeing the new American republic fled to British Canada. The British Crown split Quebec into two provinces in 1791, creating Lower Canada, a primarily Francophone region, and Upper Canada, inhabited by an Anglophone majority. After failed rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada in the late 1830s, the British reunited the two regions as the Province of Canada, until the Constitution Act of 1867 created Ontario and Quebec, more or less as we know them today.

Section 133 of the 1867 Constitution Act set forth both English and French as the official languages of the both the Canadian Parliament and the Parliament of Quebec. Industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century heralded in a wave of Anglophone immigration to Quebec, especially in the urban center of Montreal. English became the language of business here, even as the majority of the population of the city remained Francophone. Concern over the growing provenance of the English language and the marginalization of Francophone Canadians in the politics and business world of what they considered “their” province led the nationalist government in 1977 to pass the Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Law 101 or loi cent et un. This bill and its provisions made French the sole official language of the Province, requiring that all business in the Province be conducted in French. Further provisions required that all signage, advertisement, branding, etc. be in French (as a concession to companies doing business throughout Canada, the law did not forbid English to appear alongside French, so long as the French had equal or greater prominence as compared to the English text).

Likewise, French became the sole language of education for most of the residents of the Province. In order for their children to receive an education at an English-language school in the Province, residents (to this day) have to demonstrate that they themselves received an education in an English-language institution. For example, if both of one’s parents grew up in Anglophone households, considered English as their first language, raised their own children in English, but nevertheless attended a French school when they were young, their children, despite being Anglophones, would be forbidden from attending an Anglophone school. My hosts—one native Anglophone and one native Francophone—explained to me that because they could prove that they both attended an Anglophone school for some time when they were young allowed them to send their own children to an Anglophone school for a year so that, in the future, their children would have the credentials to send their children (my hosts grandchildren) to an Anglophone school should they choose to.

According to younger residents of Quebec, however, the animosity between the Anglophones and Francophones has receded in recent years. According to a women in her twenties with whom I spoke, young Francophones have embraced the multicultural status of their home—at least in Montreal. The further I venture outside of Montreal or Quebec City, she warned me, the less likely I would find fluent speakers of English. Now that the impetus behind the separatist movement has died down, she suggested, much of the animosity has also abated, though some would have little sympathy for a visitor with no French language skills. But, as the tension between residents of Westmount and the rest of Montreal demonstrates, when the linguistic issue becomes entangled with other issues, it can still spark bitter animosity.

Québec and la Fête Nationale

On 24 June every year, Quebecers celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, the fête nationale du Québec and, in the Catholic calendar, the feast day of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.   As a statutory holiday, most residents of Quebec have off of work to celebrate, and grand festivities occur in most of the major cities and towns of Quebec.

The origins of the holiday stretch back to Quebec’s history as a colony of France. The Catholic feast day had historically been a popular holiday in France, and the French settlers who came to Canada in the seventeenth century brought the celebration with them. As a Catholic feast day (Catholicism being the official religion of the French colony), celebrants engaged in both religious and secular festivities. Residents of the colony attended mass in celebration of the feast day, and often constructed large bonfires to continue the celebrations into the evening.

The holiday took on new meaning after the British took over the colony in 1763. In the 1830s, the festival gained new significance as a celebration of French-Canadian culture and its distinctiveness within the British colony. In the years following the failed Lower Canada Rebellion of 1838, in which French-Canadian patriotic sentiment had been rallied to first support political reform in the colony to favor French-Canadians and later armed insurrection to force reform, the celebrations became much more muted. They grew again in size and popularity in the late nineteenth century, emerging as a celebration of French-Canadian culture, tied closely to the religious character of the holiday, since many French-Canadians remained pious Roman Catholics. In the early twentieth century, the holiday acquired new dimensions as Pope Pius declared Saint John the Baptist the patron saint of French Canadians in 1908 and the legislature of Quebec declared the day a legal holiday.

In the 1970s, during the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, a period of intense social and political changed marked by profound secularization and the growth of intense nationalism, the holiday took on a new, highly political charge. The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, the Queen’s direct representative in the province, made the holiday a statutory holiday in 1977. Along with the secularization of the Province in the 1960s and 1970s, nationalist and separatist overtones replaced the religious significance of the holiday. The holiday transformed into a semi-official rallying point for nationalist movements, with festivities sometimes punctuated with political protest in favor of Quebecois sovereignty or independence.

Today, the holiday has reemerged as a celebration of French-Canadian culture. Official festivities occur throughout the province, highlighting francophone artists, performers, and cultural figures. Major cities in the province often host parades where the provinces official colors, blue and white, and the Fleurdelisé, the flag of Quebec, feature prominently in the parade and amongst parade-goers. While the celebrations feature primarily Francophone performers, the holiday’s status as a legal holiday means that both francophone and Anglophone Quebecers celebrate, and recently the holiday’s official organizing body have focused on inclusivity as a theme, recognizing the multicultural nature of Quebec’s society today. Yet, if asked, many still take pride in the holiday as a distinctive Quebecois holiday, especially given its timing just prior to the federal holiday of Canada Day on 1 July.   Since provincial government officially recognizes the holiday, and supports the organization which plan and coordinate festivities, official accounts of the holiday and the public perception of the holiday often align. The current theme of a society “distinct, yet accepting” celebrated in the holiday coincides with how many in Quebec see themselves. Those who I spoke to agreed with this account for the most part, but also emphasized that it was a day where they could take pride in being Quebecois and having preserved their distinct culture within Canada.


Inbound to La Belle Province

Montreal, admittedly, does not seem that foreign. Just less than fifty miles separates the city from the border of the United States. I won’t have to reset my watch when I arrive. The length of my flights to the city do not warrant even a meal, so given the short lengths of my layovers, I will in all likelihood arrive exhausted and hungry.

For being so close, however, Montreal represents almost an entirely different world. Only Paris has a greater francophone population than Montreal. The Québécois, however, speak a distinctive dialect of French rife with peculiarities unique to French Canada. Though I have studied some French in the past, many years have passed since I have actively spoken the language with any regularity. Over the past few months, I have read in French to familiarize myself with the language, as well as listened to news reports from Montreal and presentations in French to get an ear for the language, but I know that I still have much progress to make.

In truth, knowing what to expect from my experience in Montreal poses a challenge, since I have no idea how much confidence I should have in my language skills. While I find the structure of my program encouraging, the placement test that I took in preparation for my placement in the curriculum will either boost my morale or disappoint me. Part of me hopes that the assessment of my skills will fall below my own estimation, as this will provide incentive for me to improve, if only to prove to myself that I can do it. But in any case, I know that I can look forward to having better language skills at the end of the summer.

But as excited as that prospect makes me, I am more so for the opportunity to learn more about the culture of Quebec. Growing up in the United States, we learn very little about Canada, much less French Canada. I have always had a passing interest in the country, but until now I had few opportunities to seriously study it. Now that my academic interests have turned northward as well, I have read a good deal about the province of Quebec’s history, but have had almost no opportunities to experience it firsthand. Now, only a few days before I depart for Montreal for six weeks, I am beyond enthusiastic to take everything I can in about the culture and the people; even more so because I will have the ability to do it firsthand, and in their own language. I expect this will represent one of the greatest learning opportunities I have ever experienced.

I anticipate learning a great deal about Canada, Quebec, and their cultures, but also about the United States and my own country. As our neighbors, the people I will interact with while abroad possess unique insight into our own culture and politics, as they have many opportunities for exposure. Being originally from Louisiana, the idea of living so close to the United States, while outside of it both in terms of international boundaries as well as cultural boundaries, fascinates me, and I cannot wait to see what I will learn through the conversations I will have, about what brings both the United States and Canada together as well as separates them.

In any case, as I make my final preparations before departure, I am excited and curious, but not terribly nervous. I am excited to explore this quiet and unobtrusive corner of le monde francophone, and anxious to begin my novel experience of learning French so close to home, yet so far away!

Garrett at the Citadelle in Quebec City, during his only brief trip to Quebec in 2013.

Garrett at the Citadelle in Quebec City, during his brief visit to Quebec in 2013.