I read the highway signs aloud as I whizzed past, trying to mimic the sing-songy Québécois twang on the radio. It was early May, and I chattered to myself in French as I cut north out of Québec City, through Jacques-Cartier National Park, passing signs warning against collisions with moose and signalling turnoffs to lakes still cloaked in patchworks of ice. I was headed towards the shores and clifftops of one of the world’s longest fjords, hoping to glimpse whales, ride horses and practice a language that I’ve spoken for most of my life, but never quite embraced as my own.
French wasn’t something I chose for myself. The daughter of a Francophile father, I learned it through the Martine storybooks my dad read to me at bedtime, a toddlerhood spent in Strasbourg and endless dad-mandated classes at summer camps and schools in the US, where I grew up. My dad has loved France since he was young. He’s spent years in the country since his first stay as a high-school exchange student, and when I ask him what he loves about the place, he waxes on about friendships and food, beautiful cities and a particular joie de vivre. I now understand that he always wanted to share that with me.
My parents tell me that when I was two or three years old, I did have my own relationship with the language: I refused to speak it with them, yet happily babbled on with my babysitter in Strasbourg. But most of the French interactions I recall from my childhood happened in Paris during my self-conscious adolescence. I would tag along with my dad during holidays, bored by the same long meals and adult conversations he so enjoyed. And when I tried setting out on my own, even my most basic attempts to buy a croissant and talk to people were marked by brusque corrections of my American accent.
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I kept returning to France with my dad well into adulthood, but I did so reluctantly, no longer wanting to talk for myself or explore on my own. I had lost confidence in my ability to get the language right, so I let go of my desire to speak it.
That is until the first time I visited Québec 14 years ago as a graduate student. My decision to study in Montréal had less to do with French itself than with my romantic notion of life in a bilingual city where I could, in theory, speak English too.
A relic of pre-revolutionary France, Canadian French retains old qualities that make it difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. “We use words [the French] don’t use anymore, and make distinctions between sounds they’ve flattened,” explained Emilie Nicolas, a Québec-born linguistic anthropology graduate student at the University of Toronto.
Although my classes were in English, I lived in a French neighbourhood and was met with patience and smiles as I struggled with the mellifluous accent and unfamiliar local words. Something about the Québécois diphthongs and nasally vowels lured me in. My interest in French was piqued – even if my painful linguistic past caused my confidence to remain low.
Québec’s own fraught linguistic history dates back to 1763, when France ceded the area to Britain. For the next 200 years, the local government filtered French out of schools and adopted measures that benefitted English speakers. By the 1960s, francophones remained worse off economically and socially than their anglophone counterparts, and a distinct cultural and class divide permeated the province.
The 1970s brought a push for pro-French language planning, and with it bills – like the Charter of the French Language – that explicitly linked French to Québécois identity and made it the only official language of the province. But, for some, the fear that French will once again come under attack lingers. That tension was palpable for me in the nine months I lived in Montréal. I never knew which language I was supposed to speak in a given situation, and each choice felt rife with culturally charged meaning that piled on my pre-existing anxiety.
So when I returned last spring, the irony wasn’t lost on me. Here I was, searching for personal peace with French in a region where the language has been mired in discord for centuries. But this time, rather than staying in Montréal, I headed deeper into the province and forced myself to plough through my timidity in a place where most people are monolingual.
As I stepped up to the car rental counter at Québec City’s Jean Lesage International Airport, I rehearsed my lines with the trepidation that comes from an upbringing of terse correction: "Je m'appelle Stacey McKenna. J'ai réservé une voiture." I forced the words through the lump of nerves in my throat. The woman behind the counter beamed and began rattling off details – all in French. By the time I settled into my little red Volkswagen and set out on the road, I felt ready.
As I traced a loop from Québec City to the Saguenay Fjord and through the region of Charlevoix, French started to feel like a key to the region’s secrets. I arrived in the little town of L’Anse-Saint-Jean just ahead of sea kayaking and whale watching season, so in the morning over breakfast, I asked my bilingual host (guiltily, in English) for advice. He suggested a nearby hike, then asked whether I spoke any French. “I do,” I replied, staring at my plate and pushing my egg around with my fork. “But not nearly as well as you speak English."
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “We like hearing your English accent.”
I felt my belly warm with a newfound affection for the tiny but significant experiences that French – even my imperfect French – might unlock here
According to Richard Bourhis, linguistic psychologist at Université du Québec à Montréal, schooling on pronunciation tends to be less rigid in Québec than in France, which likely creates a difference in how foreign speakers are perceived. “[In France] they're taught that they can’t make mistakes in French, so they don't want you to make a mistake,” he said. “Francophones all over Canada don't mind using English or French with all kinds of accents… so long as we can understand each other.”
As my host had warned, the trail was still slick with snowmelt. I followed it upward – scanning the forest for signs of moose as I went – and soon found myself tromping through lingering drifts.
I turned back before the snow got too deep to cross in trainers, and on my descent, I ran into a group dressed far more appropriately for the muddy spring terrain than I. They asked me in French if there was still snow on top, and to my surprise, I didn’t hesitate. “Je ne sais pas. Je ne suis pas allée au sommet.” (“I don’t know. I didn’t go to the summit.”) They smiled, thanked me and continued their ascent. I felt my belly warm with a newfound affection for the tiny but significant experiences that French – even my imperfect French – might unlock here.
The next day, I headed to Baie-Sainte-Catherine, where I caught a whale-watching boat through the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park. Bracing against the wind and the rocking waves, I squinted, hoping to spot the tell-tale spray from a blowhole. As I listened to the on-board scientist talking easily in French and English about the underwater ecosystems, I wondered whether, by resisting for all these years, I’d squandered my own chance at bilingualism.
It’s a mistake French-Canadians seem less likely to make, as Québec’s French-speaking population is currently driving an increase in Canada’s bilingualism rate. “We’re very francophone still, but we don’t see speaking multiple languages as an either/or thing,” Nicolas said. “It adds. It doesn’t erase or threaten who you are in the same way it once did.”
This attitude was evident all over the province: at the Musée du Fjord in Saguenay; the cafe in Baie-Saint-Paul; the restaurant in Québec City. Over and over again, people encouraged me with their patience, asked where I had learned French and complimented my efforts. Inspired by the chance to practice this familiar language in a new, friendlier setting, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by the pleasure of speaking French. I started drawing out conversations and asking for directions and recommendations I didn’t need. French had lost its tarnish. But more than that, it was becoming mine.
When I returned to Québec City, I walked cobbled streets below matte metal roofs. The sky was grey, and I was reminded of days dawdling around Paris with my father. Grateful for the years he had insisted I learn his favourite language, I pulled out my phone and texted: "Je suis à Québec. C'est bon, mais ça serait mieux si tu étais ici." (“I’m in Québec. It's good, but it would be better if you were here.”) He agreed, and suggested we visit Québec together one day.
French had lost its tarnish – but more than that, it was becoming mine
After five days on the mostly francophone roads of rural Québec, I hopped a train to Montréal, home to the majority of the province’s bilingual residents and much of its linguistic tension. Six months prior, provincial legislators had unanimously approved a motion banning the city’s ubiquitous ‘bonjour-hi’ greeting. For nationalists, the phrase is a symbolic threat against French. But according to Bourhis, it’s an embrace of bilingualism, and a way to welcome people of either mother tongue. And despite the resolution, it isn’t going anywhere.
I dropped my bags at my hotel and headed to a glass-fronted restaurant near Old Montréal for lunch. As I took my seat, the server offered a cheery “Bonjour, hi!”. I returned the greeting, and in French free from fear, asked to see a menu.
Travel Journeys is a BBC Travel series exploring travellers’ inner journeys of transformation and growth as they experience the world.
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