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Olive Bread & the Politics of Language

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The young man who sold me this olive bread wasn't expecting a political argument. I asked for it in French, as I usually do, and he asked in French if I wanted it sliced. But as he rang up my bill he asked if I wanted anything else. He asked me this in English, and the customer in line behind me interrupted our transaction. In French, he said this woman ordered her bread in French - why are you switching to English?

"The Switch" is familiar to any Anglophone trying to talk French in Quebec. Sometimes I wish I had a t shirt or a button that says Please don't switch to English - I'm trying to learn French. I told the man behind me that I did wish more people would have his attitude. But at the same time I had misgivings about the way he spoke to the young man who was thinking about bread, not the politics of language - he was courteous and just trying to be nice, since I was obviously Anglophone. There was something self-righteous about the interruption, and I felt sad that the young man was chastened and probably embarrassed.

It is hard, though, to be spoken to in English all the time when I'm trying to hobble along in French. The immigrants who own shops in my neighbourhood don't make "the switch" - I can talk in French all I like at the Palestinian bakery or the Haitian grocery store or even the Italian cobbler or pasta shop, and the immigrants will continue the conversation in French. It's the Quebecois people who switch to English. I have asked my Quebecois husband and his family and friends why they do it, and they haven't really given me an answer. 

One reason I especially wish Quebecers would not make "the switch" is that Quebec government agencies will not let me conduct important conversations, like medical conversations, in English. Where the Quebec person on the street reverts to English, the Quebec government will not, and this makes it extremely important that I learn enough French to conduct vital business in a sane way. Maybe people think they are being "nice" by speaking my first language. Maybe they just find it easier. The man in the bakery may have embarrassed the sweet young cashier, but part of me wishes there were more Quebecers around who would stick up for French being spoken, however imperfectly, by Anglophones on the street. How else are we supposed to practice?

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On June 20th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Keep speaking French even if someone answers in English. People might think they're being polite by switching to English, but in fact it's a kind of arrogance that says "I know I speak better English than you can French". What I used to do when people switched to French was begin speaking German. Why not? Since they just switched languages, I did too. I'm sorry if my bad French offends people's sensibilities, but I demand the right to air it since, as you say, I will need to at times when it will be vitally important.
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On June 20th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC), kathleenwinter replied:
Re: persist
Thanks for the encouragement to persist, Alice. I wish I could speak a bit of German!
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