Dr. Anne-José Villeneuve, assistant professor of French Linguistics at the Campus Saint-Jean and adjunct professor at the Department of Linguistics at the University of Alberta. This article was originally published in French and has been translated with permission from the author.
With over 300 million speakers, French is the 5th most widely spoken language in the world. It is also one of the official working languages of the United Nations (UN), which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020.
Every year, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) recognizes March 20th as International Francophonie Day. This year, as part of its official Language Days, the UN will celebrate the OIF’s 50th anniversary through its French Language Day activities. On Friday, March 20, 2020, Canadians will join French speakers around the world to celebrate the French language as it is spoken on both sides of the Atlantic. But this year, much of the celebration will be taking place in virtual spaces…
In this period of uncertainty and social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this very special March 20th is a perfect moment to come together and get to know one another. To talk about our experience as francophones, franglophones, and friends of the Francophonie. To reflect on a vision of the Francophonie in which every voice counts.
As a sociolinguistics researcher working on a francophone campus in Alberta, I am interested in linguistic variation, bilingualism and language learning. Born to a Québécois father and a Haitian mother, I have long felt the effects of prescriptive norms of French, which sing the praises of a so-called “standard French” while stigmatizing other varieties. Even as a child, I found myself analyzing the harmful effects that this linguistic discrimination had on people and their self-esteem. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was a budding sociolinguist before I even started school.
Growing up in the Montreal region, I was always surrounded by French. In Quebec and in France, you’re not born a francophone, you become one. In Ontario or Alberta, it’s a different story. Only after I arrived in the anglophone world did I discover that I was a francophone.
I learned English by deciphering cereal boxes, in ESL courses, and later in a pilot immersion program in grade six. Having been in the francophone school system since kindergarten, I wanted to pursue part of my postsecondary studies in my second language. Despite a few challenges relating to linguistic insecurity, I learned a lot from this new intercultural experience. I was gradually becoming a bilingual francophone.
My mother never spoke to my brother nor I in Haitian Creole. Although I sometimes heard the language at home when Mom got mad or when she was on the phone, I never dared to speak Creole for fear that “real” Haitians would make fun of my Québécois “accent”. I wanted to do research on the language of my ancestors, so I learned Haitian Creole at university. I discovered my roots and was able to talk to my mother in her native language. I had only ever communicated with her in the language of the colonizers; now, for the first time, I spoke to her in Kreyòl, the language of the people.
Like Louisiana gumbo, I am the product of a meeting of cultures. Like any child of immigrants with a bicultural identity, I navigate between two worlds on a daily basis, I am constantly adapting, I am intercultural. The same is true of my Francophonie. I’d like to tell you about it, if I may.
My Francophonie is a community of French speakers – a language from France that has spread its colonial influence to the Americas, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. My Francophonie brings people together to celebrate the diversity of French as it is spoken, here and around the world, alongside languages as diverse as English, Arabic, Breton, Wolof and Spanish. My Francophonie is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds who gather in communities of practice around a language to bring it to life each and every day. It is a symphony of voices with diverse accents and different modes of expression, all pointing to a living, dynamic, and modern French language of the future. After all, a language is not some inert object to be protected in a museum; it is a living object that evolves in the mouths of its speakers.
My Francophonie is multifaceted, but above all, it builds bridges, by recognizing and celebrating the linguistic and cultural heritage of the people who comprise it. Like the heritage of my father, a Québécois from Lac-Saint-Jean, whose French ancestors go back to the early 17th century when New France was first founded. Like the heritage of my mother, a francophone and Creole-speaking immigrant from Haiti, a “new Canadian” who came to Canada in the early 1970s.
My Francophonie recognizes the experience of francophones in minority language communities who have been surrounded by English since childhood, who live with a non-francophone partner, who sometimes struggle to hear their voices (and to make them heard) in the media. While some have been able to attend school in their first language, thanks to the efforts of those who have passionately defended the rights of linguistic minorities, others have found their access limited to school French, to “correct” French. Still others have lost the language of their ancestors and are now working to help their children rediscover it.
A multifaceted Francophonie is one where we can recognize each other’s experiences, and one where we can laugh, learn, help, talk, and thrive in French. Sometimes in the “correct” French of the classroom, in the formal language of public discourse, but more often in the French of the street, the French that takes off its makeup, that comes from the gut – and yes, the French that dances and mingles with English from time to time.
Whether you’re a francophone, a franglophone, a new francophone or a francophile, speak French if you can, and add your voice to those of others to bring the French language to life. Happy French Language Day and happy International Francophonie Day, everyone!
To learn more about the United Nations (UN) French Language Day, visit https://www.un.org/fr/observances/french-language-day/.