Stephanie Glenister, who studied French in the UK before working as an English language assistant in France and Canada, reveals the linguistic and cultural benefits.
Which variety of French did you learn first?
My first experience of French was the language as it is spoken in France. The French language component of my degree in French and Italian studies focused mainly on this variation.
How were you exposed to other varieties of the language, and how did it affect your learning?
My only first-hand experience of another variety of French has been via my current position as an English language assistant for the British Council in Québec. I am constantly discovering new lexical threads stitching Québecois into the rich tapestry that is the French language. My favourite so far is the extra tu in conversational Québecois that can replace est-ce que in a question with no need for inversion (French: Est-ce que l’on peut jouer? Québecois: On peut-tu jouer?). It’s so much simpler and I almost feel as though I fit in when I manage to use it correctly.
How have your own ideas about different language varieties changed over time?
I have also lived and worked as an au pair in Tuscany and Veneto, where I saw striking contrasts between the dialects and cultures of different regions of Italy. My fascination with languages and their infinite varieties has grown more profound with each new discovery. I felt ignorant for arriving after only a year of studying beginners’ Italian. I didn't know how many interesting local dialects I would discover during my travels.
I felt similarly when I arrived in Québec. Even with my degree in French, I had many misunderstandings as I adjusted to my new life and its langue courante. But I prefer to learn by experience. I am embracing each conversational slip-up as a new opportunity to discover the differences between the language in Canada and France.
What are the benefits of immersing yourself in more than one distinct variety of a language?
Heightened cultural awareness – and as a result, interpersonal development – is a benefit. I've studied a significantly different variety of French, but it is not more 'pure' or 'correct' than any other. I always clarify when speaking to people in Canada that I may have a strong understanding of the variation spoken in France, but I have come here to discover a new culture and variety of the language and want to learn from them.
Sometimes people learn the other variety of French from me while teaching me about Québecois. For example, a person I spoke to recently was surprised that people in France use petit déjeuner/déjeuner/dîner instead of déjeuner/dîner/souper when talking about mealtimes. This experience of cultural exchange is one of my favourite aspects of living and working here.
Is there a downside?
Initially, I felt my level of French was regressing as I struggled to understand the local accent and make myself understood. However, I no longer see this as a real downside. It feels more rewarding as I become increasingly able to sustain long conversations with the Québecois.
What kind of ideas have you encountered about linguistic ‘correctness’?
I was dismayed to hear from some of the other British assistants who returned to university after spending their year abroad in Québec that they were penalised for ‘incorrect’ language during their final-year oral exam. The varieties of French spoken in Canada don't resemble the langue de Molière, but these differences should be welcomed into university language departments as the fascinating hallmarks of different francophone cultures.
Anne Sellès politely reminds people visiting Québec from France that 'Il n’y a pas de bon ou de mauvais français, il n’y a que des Français qui ont évolué différement' ('There is no good or bad French, only French people who have evolved differently') and that they should not expect an inferior variation of their own language upon arrival.
What can you tell us about the cultural and scientific aspects of immersing yourself in the same language in different parts of the world?
Dialects and other linguistic variations are often underrated, as far as cultural understanding is concerned.
A recent study from the University of Cambridge showed similar cognitive patterns between people who speak two languages, and people who speak two dialects. Researchers at Abertay University in Dundee have found comparable results. That supports the idea that we can consider a variation within language a different language entirely.
Geography also affects vocabulary, including the climate. Frette, used in Québec to mean very cold, is not necessary in France, where the winter is around 30 degrees warmer.
How do institutional decisions in different countries affect different varieties of the same language?
The Académie Française struggles with the idea of l’écriture inclusive (syntactic male/female gender representation) 'threatening' its traditional language.
The French language office in Québec prefers a different style of inclusive writing – la rédaction epicène. With la rédaction epicène, written words are made as gender-neutral as possible.
It seems that the language as it is spoken in Canada is becoming more progressive, while the Académie Française considers even the less inclusive of the two movements – l’écriture inclusive – a péril mortel for the French language.
For me, this is another useful point of comparison between the two varieties of the language. I look forward to discovering examples of la redaction epicène during my time here in Québec.
Read Stephanie Glenister's blog, The Stephinite Article.
Find out how to apply to be an English language assistant.