Pardon My French Canadian – Americans and French

When I moved to Vermont, what amazed me most was how fully and completely my adopted state would take the most French of words and transform them into more guttural Americanized versions. For example, the capitol city is Montpelier as in Mont-peel-yer rather than the more accurate, “Mon-peel-yea”, Calais is “callous”, and Lamoille is pronounced like the special rabbi at a Jewish bris ceremony.

The first time I pronounced Calais like its French namesake, a whole room full of people turned to stare incredulously in my direction. This occurs is an area where, because of our proximity within 50 miles of the Quebec border, many businesses fly both the Stars and Stripes as well as the Canadian maple leaf flags.

The exact same thing occurs with French or French-Canadian family names here. The first time I met someone named Thibodeaux, I strained to understand what sounded like “tie boat”. Likewise, Robitaille begat Robe-tally and Rochambeau turned into Roach-bot.

I don’t know about all parts of the U.S., but it seems just about every place I have lived or visited with a strong French or French Canadian population similarly abuses pronunciation of words that are generally not so alien to us. One of those places is Central Connecticut where many left especially the province of Quebec to come down to work in the factories and other industries that were once busy in cities like Waterbury.

Growing up, I often played with another girl whose adopted parents were French-Canadian. These people lived almost their entire adult lives or well more than fifty years in Connecticut. When I visited them, it was like entering an entirely different world. It was a world rich with religious iconography – no home seemed to feel comfortable unless they had a signed proclamation from the Pope blessing their marriage and domicile – and captured radio broadcasts from Montreal and the rest of Quebec. They had come here to establish lives and build their nest eggs, never spoke of returning for more than a visit yet never forgot the wonders of home.

These people also never stopped talking their native tongue. While all could speak heavily accented English – a principle language in Canada as well – and some could read and write English as well, they immediately slipped back to their style of French whenever two or more gathered in a room. These transplants worked very hard to integrate but also to keep their foods, their values, and their language intact.

Fancifully, I have always imagined that one of the reasons Americans work so hard to butcher French or French-Canadian lies well beyond ignorance. Visiting with French Canadian families as a child – and the goddaughter of one – I found other Americans nervous and irritated by the immigrants’ ability to speak French.

“Get two of them in a room together and all they speak is the bleeping French,” an old-timer in our midst used to snarl. He, like many others, always assumed they spoke French so they could rag on the Americans. This seemed to be a universal point of contention, one borne of suspicion and doubt, that the French Canadians spoke French to annoy them and to talk about them even while they shared the same room.

Since coming to Vermont, I overheard another man say, “What is with these people? Why can’t they talk American when they’re here?”

Yet Canadians, including the French-speaking ones that often dominate parts of Quebec, are Americans. Just as Mexicans who speak Spanish are Americans. We share North America with both other countries. So French Canadians and Mexicans are speaking a language of America, just a different one than we in the United States use. In fact, much of Canada speaks English, as we do.

Also like us, however, Canada has been a real melting pot in the last several generations. Because of this, you find far more collectives of people who speak a non-English language than ever before.

Americans of the United States do have one quality that many other places do not possess. This is a sense that we do not need any language other than English. While students in even the poorest schools in Africa, for example, often speak three, six, or more languages so they can communicate with more people around them, U.S. residents expect everyone else to conform to our English. Those who do know more than Americanized English usually understand how much of our current tongue comes from other countries, including France and Germany. They can also look to Mexico where many of the medical and technological terms are directly rooted in English.

Many teachers and business professionals are quite concerned with the American tendency to communicate in only one language. While English was once the dominant language of commerce, it has many contenders today. U.S. students, experts say, would do well to master more than English if they want to compete and communicate.

Even with the U.S., there have been a number of fights over whether English can be established as the official language of the land. While so far, English has usually won, this may change and soon. As the Hispanic population grows in many areas, we may see in our lifetime a point at which white English-speaking Americans of European descent become a minority. The face and voice of this part of North America is evolving, as it has since the white settlers first landed and even before, when Native Americans dominated the landscape with their many individual and distinct languages. Life always brings change.

Let me share one more thing. This directly relates to all the fears my fellow New Englanders seem to have about their French Canadian neighbors.

I happened to know enough French as a child to understand much of what was passed between the Quebecois immigrants in conversation. Ironically, I rarely heard a French Canadian ridicule his or her adopted neighbors. Instead, they were usually discussing changes in Montreal or its environs since last they were there, the best local restaurants that served their native specialties, or family issues that they seemed to feel more comfortable discussing among fellow French Canadians than among. Sometimes, this conversation included talk of the Pope or the Church, medical appointments, and diet.

In other words, French Canadians had better things to talk about when they were assembled than their English-only neighbors. Yet, how like us to assume that we were the subject of all their conversations!

I think of this whenever I hear people fret that Koreans or Puerto Ricans or Chinese speaking their native tongue are doing so to have a private joke at the Americans’ expense. While I don’t speak Korean or Chinese, I do know more Spanish than French and again, have rarely overheard comments that could not have easily been shared in English without problem.

Perhaps I’m a rare bird, but I usually thoroughly enjoy hearing others speak a different language. As a writer, I sometimes feel limited by our own majestic language and crave what new words and meanings I can discover in other tongues.

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