More Language Politics

I was pleased to see that the French language lobby stopped the Esso Corporation’s plan to give its depanneurs an English name — “On the Go,” and I am pleased to see that people are now starting to ask questions about the English-language signs for multinationals.

Since Bill 101 the Quebec language police have been the target of much Anglo wrath and mockery. And some of the resentment seemed reasonable: small business owners had to have their signage in French, but large multinationals were excused from the requirement. I’ve heard people say that the conversion of “Stop” to “Arrét” is extreme since the signs say “Stop” in France. But France has its own language laws and language police, and it’s an independent country, not a part of a country where the majority language is English.

As La Presse pointed out this week, a quick drive around the Maché Centrale shopping centre confirms that multinationals get off easy when it comes to signage. If your company name is an international trademark, well, that’s that. Phrases like “English Language Sign Creep” are starting to show up in the local media.

If it’s a proper name, like “Ikea” that’s one thing (though for all I know it’s Swedish for “particle board” or “KMart” or something), but English names like “Future Shop” and “Best Buy” are easily translatable and should be translated.

Here’s why.

The point of the French language signage policy is to preserve the French language, and especially to help stop English from completely taking over the city as the language of commerce. It works. I moved here in 2004 not knowing a word of French. I have taken lessons but I haven’t had time to immerse myself in spoken French. My spoken French and listening comprehension are crap, though I do know how to be polite. My reading, however, is doing pretty well. As I go around town, I can now understand a good deal of French signage and even some of the strangely idiomatic wording of billboard ads. I can read French menus, I can read French instructions. I can even read emails in French (especially queries about the grad program). Why? Because even though I live and work in English and almost everything I read (newspapers, books, etc) is in English, there is a great deal of “ambient French” in my visual environment as I go about my life here. I pick it up. I pay attention. I incorporate words. And I learn the best way possible: rather than translating the word in my head, I associate the word with its referent directly. Like “depanneur.”

Before you say that this is economic suicide, keep in mind that this is already a regular event in Canadian commerce: Bureau en Gros (aka “Staples”) is doing just fine with English and French names, and English-language companies routinely re-brand themselves because of Canadian trademarks: witness the recent birth of “The Source by Circuit City” (used to be Radio Shack) and “Cashmere” toilette paper (used to be Cottonelle). If it works in English, French shouldn’t be a problem.

Thursday’s Gazette had another one of those ugly Anglo essays, by Robert Libman (the mayor of Cóte St. Luc), complaining that “timid Anglos” should stand up for their rights to have depanneurs called by an English trademark, and to give their children english-speaking toys (newsflash: they can if they want, they just can’t find a big selection at Toys R Us), among other things. The piece argues that the only reason Anglos don’t stand up to this is that they are afraid of stirring up nationalist sentiment, and that the result is that Montreal’s historic English-speaking community is “marginalized.” You can imagine what I’d say about that.

The less we protect English-speakers from French signage and other media, the easier it will be for English speakers like me to learn French. That was the point of Canadian bilingualism, right? Of course that’s complicated because Quebec is officially monolingual, and the language is French. So if the goal of Quebec cultural policy is to promote French language culture, then it needs to pay the most attention to multinationals. That’s where the action is. Meanwhile, “timid Anglos” in Montreal ought to know that “depanneur” means “convenience store,” and if they don’t know that by now, it’s their own fault.

One reply on “More Language Politics”

  1. As a Québécoise-francophone that had to learn English in her teen years to “lead a successful professional life”, as the discourse goes, I’m quite happy to read this.

    I learned English. It was hard by moments (it still is!), but because of the “ambient English” here, I had many occasions to practice. I can’t see why Anglos here feel threatened by French. It’s so easy to live in English in Montreal. Besides, learning two languages (or more) is a great opportunity to learn about other people, other cultures, other references. And this is not to be missed.

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