I spent the weekend in Montreal, a city that I had not been to before. I have plenty to say about it -- in a nutshell, it's especially wonderful, which is saying something, because wonderfulness is typical of Canadian cities -- but the one thing that struck me as a newcomer was its essential bilingualism.
Of course, it's a very French city. But having spent an afternoon at the McCord Museum of Canadian History (Musee de l'Histoire Canadienne) which is part of McGill University, I learned that it's also a very, very English city, with a lot of Scottish and Irish immigration thrown in for good measure. Presently, it's an immigrant city as well, so it's also Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and lots of other nationalities and cultures as well. French and English are the predominany ethnicities, but they're certainly not the only ones.
Historically, it became very French with the rise of the Parti Quebecois, which is the political party that advocated the French-only language policy in the '70s that continues in many ways to this day. Conseqently, many, many of the English fled Montreal for the greener pastures of Toronto, and because the English held most of the serious economic power, the financial power left with them. This is the reason that Toronto is now the financial capital of Canada, and Montreal is the "second city" of the nation. Of course this is a pretty fast simplification; there were lots of other cultural and political issues at stake, too, but suffice it to say that Quebec has managed to politically maintain its identity as a separate culture within the Canadian federation. (It's also worth mentioning that I can't figure out how to produce all the French accents and diacritical marks in this platform, so I apologize to all who think I'm misspelling all the French words, because I am.)
I expect that after losing the crown as the Premiere Ville de la Nation to that upstart on Lake Ontario, many Quebecois decided that perhaps insisting on French to the level that they did was maybe not the best idea. I can say that I noticed a bilingualism -- lots of classes for the English to learn French and vice versa, often aimed at businesspeople, which makes sense. And if I'm not mistaken, Canadian high schoolers routinely learn both languages in school, so that the lines drawn between the two sort-of-enemy linguistic camps have been blurred. A detente seems to be in place.
It's not an uneasy detente. Not at all, in fact. I was impressed over and over, as a visiting American and aspiring French speaker, at how normal it seemed for Montrealers to move back and forth between French and English with ease, apparently not noticing the fact that they were constantly and effortlessly navigating two languages as a normal state of affairs.
My first encounter with this was in a coffeehouse late Friday afternoon. I had a headache from the drive up which I assumed was caffeine related (or, more precisely, from a lack of caffeine). I went to the counter, and having returned to the study of French in the past year after my undergraduate study more than twenty years ago, figured, why not? "Je voudrais un petit caffe latte, s'il vous plait," I said in my best French. The counter guy, probably about 20, returned with something that I just couldn't get. He didn't say it particularly fast; if anything, it was normal speech. I expect that he asked me something like whether or not I wanted the latte for here or to go, which is something I learned in my colleague Chelsea's French class that I'm taking, but I just couldn't remember it. I said, "Pardon? Repetez, s'il vous plait," and he returned with "Would you like it in paper or in china? Is it for here or to go?" in perfect English, then turned to one his coworkers and exchanged a few words in French, who responded and then took a new order from another customer in English, all while talking to yet another coworker in French.
I expect that my accent gave me away, and of course I think that salesclerks are sensitive to being able to meet their customers' needs -- especially in an tourist city like Montreal, where lots of tourists are Americans who can't speak French. (Or Spanish, either, the de facto second language of the USA.) But I was more impressed that nobody seemed to break a sweat about this. All of the counter help simply went back and forth between French and English flawlessly and effortlessly, as if bilingualism was the most normal thing in the world. In a city like Montreal, it seems to be.
This scenario was played out repeatedly in every restaurant I ate in, in every museum I went to, and everywhere on the street. Montrealers simply live in two linguistic worlds and seem to inhabit both of them most comfortably. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't tensions. I bet there are. I expect that choosing one language over another can have enormous political repercussions in various contexts, and I woudl guess that there are some real class issues about choosing one over the other as well. English was traditionally the language of the ruling class who held power, French the language of the ruled -- though I would bet that that has changed a great deal as the Parti Quebecois came to serious power.
But insisting on one language and some kind of language purity is never a good idea, to my mind, and I'd like to think that Montrealers have decided that as well. I don't blame the French Quebecois at all for insisting that they comprise a unique culture in North America. They do, after all, and being surrounded by an overwhelming majority of English-speaking Canadians (and Americans), the only way to preserve their identity is to insist that their language has status, whether it be primary status or equal status. But linguistic purity has its own price; you can legislate how language is supposed to be used, but you just can't control how people actually use it. I'd like to think that Montrealers have figured that out and decided that the best way to honor both the importance and necessity of both languages in Quebec is to simply use them both.
I belabor this point because it reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother about a year ago. We were talking about getting caught in the hell of endless of voice mail when calling an 800 phone number, and she said out of the blue, "I just can't stand it when I'm asked if I want to continue in Spanish. Why can't it all be in English? Why can't they just learn our language?"
Those of you who know me well can imagine how I might have chosen to respond to that, but I politely held my tongue and thought to myself how absurd such a statement was. After all, Mom wasn't in the least inconvenienced by a request to continue in Spanish; nobody was forcing her to press "2" and listen to anything but English. The whole exchange does point up how intensely people feel about language, and she intensely feltthat English only was the way to go. I feel, with equal intensity, that language is inextricably tied to identity, and nobody, but nobody, has the right to dictate identity to someone else.
But our disagreement would be a moot point, at least for most Montrealers, who have found a better way. That way requires work. I'm sure that my mother has no intention of learning Spanish, and given that she lives in Michigan, she doesn't need to; she never deals with Spanish speakers, so what's the big deal? For those who do live where there's more than one language in use, though, people would have to make an effort to learn both. More accurately, the people in power would have to learn a second language; in my experience, the people not in power already are, whether they want to or not. I give enormous credit to Montrealers, who not only figured this out but also live the rich experience of working in two languages all the time. I can't remember which French writer said this, but the quote I recall goes something like "He who speaks another language lives another life." Exactly.