What French do we learn in Quebec ?

Samuel Marticotte:

When I was growing-up, I remember that I had a very hard time in school when writing texts. I remember still today why this was the case. Perhaps this is true to a certain extent for all of you and all students. Writing is a difficult task because written language always departs to a certain extent from the variety that you speak where you grow up.

This makes me think of Maxime, who is a bilingual, but often complains that written French is so much more convoluted than the spoken French he knows. Having grown-up writing English, he gets the impression that writing English is easier because it is closer to the spoken language.

When I was a teenager, I really liked writing, and felt a burning desire to write texts. But the French I was taught in school never felt appropriate for writing what I wanted to say. I also found writing English easier because, indeed, it felt closer to the spoken language, (whether this is true or not needs more sociolinguistic inquiry). Many of the feelings I had could be described in sociolinguistic terms. The prescribed French I was taught did not correspond to the language I was using. The North-Shore variety I speak is a dialect if compared against standard French. There also seemed to be a great social distance when I use verbs such as the « passé simple » to describe past events, because this verbal form isn’t found in spoken French which uses the « passé simple », although this must be a reality for all speakers of French because it is confined to writing in all varieties. Unfortunately, this state of affairs will not change soon, there have been many debates about the status of Québécois French, always coming to the same conclusion: teach and retain « Standard French » because Québécois Frenches are dialects of French, just like France’s or other colonies’ Frenches. I believe it is linguistically accurate, but how politics is involved in the thinking process remains obscure to me.

It would have been great to have had in class, someone who could explain that to us : that there is a standard, but that the varieties we spoke departed from it in such and such ways. The teacher’s prescriptivist attitude gave me the impression that the language I wanted to use to express my feelings was just « wrong ». Now I know better, it’s different and not recognized as standard, but I know some of the rules of spoken Québécois are systematic for example the use of « r »’s in conditionals. It is interesting to not that learners, such as me, grow out of this frustration as they become accustomed to the standard variety. As soon as I got the means to express what I wanted in standard French or other languages, writing became easier. Although I remember that still in Cégep, I was shocked by our professor’s spoken language that felt so different (because he came from another region and had a very « educated » speech). So I wonder whether, acknowledging students’ dialects, and explaining sociolinguistic differences in plains terms would not help students feel better about writing? However, teachers are not sociolinguists, teaching varieties may be too much to ask, especially if there is no written form for it or grammar books for it. I’m looking forward to hear about your experiences? Has anyone had similar experiences?

3 thoughts on “What French do we learn in Quebec ?”

  1. Hey Samuel,

    I’ve heard the same thing from a few people, so you must be onto something with this. As I didn’t grow up learning French, I can’t say definitively. However, I understand that French has certain grammatical constructs only used in writing and never in speech. This confuses me because I pretty much just learned how to communicate in French verbally and my written French is still a work in progress. I’m not sure how teachers can make concessions for this when the writing system is so rigid. I do think, however, that from a second language standpoint the French that’s taught could do with a makeover. I’m probably generalising, because I’ve only taken one brief course in 8 years living in Québec, but I was surprised that the French being taught was the standard variety with no adaptations for local dialect. As for English, I think it’s true that the way we speak is closer to the way we write. The fact explicit grammar isn’t taught in English schools is probably testament to the fact a lot of spoken English is transferrable to its written form. Then again, there are lots of English speaking parts of the world where the spoken form is dialect heavy and wouldn’t be accepted on paper. If a Glaswegian school student, for example, handed in their essay assignment in the writing style of Irvine Welsh (the author of Trainspotting), they’d probably get told to rewrite it using “correct English”, as would if a young Québecois did the same thing in the style of Michel Tremblay.


  2. Haha! Thanks Matthew for you comment! I like your example with Trainspotting. Such an interesting movie (to me) for its language! I need to watch it again soon.


  3. Interesting Samuel! I did not know that such a disparity between the spoken and written form of French in Quebec Existed. However, I wonder to what extent this difference can be called diglossic. In the case of Arabic, for instance, there is a considerable difference between the written form and spoken form of the language in almost all modern Arabic dialects. Take the case of Egypt, Egyptians, whose dialect is the most widely used and understood by Arabs, speak a form of Arabic that varies from that of Modern Standard Arabic. This, as a consequence, causes a lot of uneasiness for them as they intend to use the more standard form of the language, be it written or spoken. The case of Moroccan Arabic is even more interesting. It is an amalgam of Arabic, French, and Berber. Therefore, for most speakers of this dialect, it must be hugely challenging to write something in the standard/accepted form of the language.

    Back to Samuel’s post, I wonder how much of Quebec French resembles Arabic. Also, if a Quebecer were to communicate with someone from France what form of French would they use, as I have heard that there’s a considerable difference between the two versions of the language.

    I guess, after all, we should sympathize with learners of these languages/dialects as they tremendously strive to learn them. The difference we find between written/formal form of Arabic and the spoken form(s) has made it among the most difficult languages to learn. For Quebec French, I think newcomers should not be blamed when they grumble about how difficult it is to understand French as they speak with the Quebecois.

    One final thought with respect to Quebec French, as indicated by Van Herk (2012) the disparity we see between European French and Canadian French is a logical result of linguistic isolation. I wonder if, within Quebec, given that Samuel mentioned the dialect of the north-shore, there is some form of physical isolation that results in such a difference (albeit not significant). Although I have other lingering thoughts, I think I have said enough.


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