More on speaking French…

I was a bit early for my QWF travel writing workshop tonight, so I went to a cafe to pass the time. I had my laptop, so for amusement I went looking through some old files — the archive of my mind. I found a note-to-self containing a hopelessly poetic idea for a story set in a place where the language is song, and if you can’t sing, you can’t be understood. The hero of the story, of course, can’t sing. Duh.

In my notes I mention words in French that are difficult for hardcore anglos like myself to say, such as gauffre. This is particularly interesting because just last week I had a discussion about a gauffre shop with a francophone friend, and I managed to get through it all without once having to actually say the word.

Here’s an excerpt from the notes, with just a touch of contemporary embellishment:

In French, there are a number of words and sounds that are very difficult for someone from an anglo-saxon background to produce. An example of this is the French word for waffle, gauffre. The first part of the word, the drunk-sounding gauf, is simple enough, but the ending is impossible. The double “f” followed by the “re” create a fluttering sound, like a whispered secret. A delicate sonic texture, as if painting with feathers — impossible to create with my bulky and purposeful Germanic mouth.

The best I can manage is gauf-ruh, or worse, gauf-er. The properly spoken Gauffre, a word which begins in the gutter and ends on the whisper of a bird’s wing, remains, like the tenor of Caruso, a sound destined only for my ear, not my tongue.

Martine is curious …

… about the Montreal Anglophone perspective on the idea that life in Montreal demands only a “mediocre” understanding of French. This question hits home with me, because I’m one of those rare birds – an Anglo in Montreal who has very limited skills with the predominant language. This is particularly salient right now, as I just bought a condo, which implies I am committing to living here for at least a while longer. More on that later.

It is quite possible to live in Montreal with only a minimal knowledge of French. It is certainly not ideal, as 80% of the life around you will be inaccessible to you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t carve out a place for yourself in that smaller Anglo virtual village.

Many people see this ability to survive in “English only” as some kind of cultural flaw on the part of the city. A crack in Montreal’s French façade. I stongly disagree. It is not a sign of weakness or defeat, it is a testament to Montreal’s strength as a truly cosmopolitan city. Look at Paris, or London, or New York. Think about Tokyo, or Sydney, or Buenos Aires. All of these cities have strong immigrant and expatriate communities where people carve out an existence for themselves in their own languages, and I’m not just talking about English. Obviously, as they settle in, they (or at least their children) integrate into the larger community over time.

Of course that is a flawed comparison. My point is that in any great city, sub-languages and sub-cultures exist. The difference here is that the Anglo subculture is within a larger French subculture, which itself is wrapped in a larger Anglo culture (that of North America as a whole). Concentric circles. But let’s be frank – Montreal is not Paris. We’re not surrounded by an old French republic, in turn surrounded by other old and diverse nations and cultures.

Instead, we’re surrounded by a relatively new French culture in a geographically large area that has a very low population density. It is (or at least has been for the past 135 years), part of a larger country that was founded on the idea of a bi-cultural confederation. English families have planted their cabbage in this Quebec soil for hundreds of years, especially in the areas in and around Montreal. It is natural for there to be a strong English presence here. Even the city’s flag reflects this in its four symbols–the French fleur-de-lis, the English rose, the Irish shamrock, and the Scottish thistle.

That said, I think the Quebec and Montreal of 2002 is very different from how they were in 1950 or even 1970. With the exception of people in the geriatric ward, you have to look long and hard (in my experience) to find an Anglo who grew up here who is not fluent in French. The only Anglos I know who are not fluent are ones like me… immigrants from Canada or the U.S. (By “fluent” I mean being able to follow and contribute to a conversation – I don’t necessarily mean seamless proficiency.)

I don’t use the word immigrant lightly. I really do feel like an immigrant – not from the perspective of the racism, discrimination, and poverty that many immigrants come up against – but from a cultural point-of-view, and of feeling like an outsider who will never be fully integrated or accepted.

For this reason, I always have a background process running, asking myself “how much longer will I stay here?” and “will I commit to this place?” I remember having this discussion with Mikel a few years ago, when we noticed how many young Anglo immigrants were doing just that – committing to a life in Montreal – and and they were all bilingual, or at least well on their way towards it.

Yet I stumble along, not moving much beyond “present tense, declarative statement” French. Perhaps this is partly due to my inability to commit to this city. Or maybe I have a brain defect. (For example, no matter how hard I try, I cannot learn mathematical equations.)

Having bought this condo on the Plateau, however, has forced me to really confront the issue. (Not that real estate is the ultimate commitment, but this is the biggest step I’ve taken in that direction.)

Up until now, it has always come down to this: I’d rather have 20% of Montreal than all of Toronto. However, I’m now at a point in my life where I want more – more of Montreal. More people. More cinema. More theatre. More listening in on other people’s conversations in cafes and restaurants. More employment possibilities.

I just don’t know if I’m capable. The biggest problem is that my inner world is more active than my outer world. That’s where I think and dream and imagine. It’s where I work. Even my outer world is 95% about talking and writing – all in English. I don’t know if I can leave all that behind for six or eight months while I immerse myself in French – because that’s the only way to do it.