Photo: Jean-Benoît Nadeau
Canadian Prime-Minister Stephen Harper’s recent appointment of Michael Ferguson as Canada’s Auditor General stirred controversy in Canada.
The reason? Ferguson doesn’t speak French, one of Canada’s official languages.
In reaction, Ferguson promised to learn the French language within a year.
Plenty of commentators found this hard to swallow. Ferguson built his civil service career in the only bilingual province of Canada, New-Brunswick. It’s hard to believe he didn’t think of learning French all those years he spent as Provincial Auditor, then as Deputy Minister of Finance.
How do you explain this? Was Ferguson too stubborn? Too lazy? Just didn’t care?
But more importantly, why did his nomination spark controversy about bilingualism, when unilingualism is the problem here. Read more »
In Canada, the British North America Act of 1867 safeguarded the rights of French speakers in Québec and in federal institutions, but English was clearly more equal than French. Until the 1960s the federal government did absolutely nothing to defend the rights of francophones outside Québec (although, ironically, Québec had a constitutional obligation to protect the rights of its own anglophone minority). The federal government simply did not apply its own laws or the country’s constitution; for example, when Manitoba denied constitutional guarantees to its French community in 1890, Ottawa did nothing. It was only because French Canadians lobbied to have French words on Canadian stamps commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Act in 1927 that the federal government eventually agreed to do so. French didn’t appear on Canada’s currency until 1936, and the lack of French in the Canadian military was still a problem in the Second World War. Read more »
Photo: Carlos Porto
Excerpt taken from the book The Story of French (Ch. 6)
Many plans were made during the revolutionary period to establish a system of free primary schools throughout France. But the results were meagre; it was partly a problem of manpower and partly the result of general political chaos. In many French towns there were no teachers who spoke French, and few towns had the resources to train new ones. The National Assembly came up with a vast plan to produce and distribute teaching books in French, but amid the political and social upheaval of the Revolution, the books never got printed. In 1794, seeing the poor results of the Committee for Public Instruction, the revolutionary government decided to create a teacher-training school in Paris, the École normale (teachers’ college, a term still in use).
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“Vous êtes Belge?” (“You’re Belgian?”) is a question Jean-Benoît is often asked in France, though more often in the south than in the north. He knows enough not to be flattered. For some reason the French love to laugh at Belgians. Belgian jokes are like Newfie jokes in Canada or Vermont jokes in New England (we can testify that the same cookie-cutter stories circulate freely between languages). But there is at least one legitimate reason why some French confuse Belgians and Quebeckers: Both produce diphthongs (combinations of two vowel sounds) for certain vowels and drag other vowels out in a way that Parisian French no longer does. The pronunciations of Belgians and Quebeckers are actually quite different, but years of language purism have dulled French ears to the nuances that distinguish Belgian and Quebec diphthongs. Typically, Belgians add an I after the sound É so that aller (to go) sounds like alleï. In words like bière (beer) they stretch the E (bee-ehr). Quebeckers typically stretch the E and the diphthong, which results in a pronunciation something like bee-ah-air. Belgians also tend to use the resources of French differently from French people, distinguishing between words that the French pronounce the same way, like brun (brown) and brin (twig) or bout (end) and boue (mud). Read more »