The Shame of not speaking French in Montreal

Hi readers! Thanks for visiting my blog as I continue to enjoy the rich and vibrant city of Montreal.

Oops, I got my arms backwards! Nice pic taken by friend Naomi.

I wrote two blog postings last week, but decided not to publish either one. They were both about language tensions I’ve experienced in Montreal and how different neighbourhoods seem to differ greatly regarding that. The thing is, I don’t want to focus on that, nor to I want to pull anyone else’s focus to it by describing the situations at length.

What I will mention relates to my main topic of inquiry the past couple of weeks.

One of the varieties of Montreal row houses.

Another variety of Montreal row houses.

It would seem that in the recent past many French speakers were shamed by English speakers. The English tended to hold the top jobs, afforded the most expensive homes, and it was felt or experienced that many of them looked down on the French. Even though French is firmly in place as the first language of Montreal today, there is some hangover from that previous era. That is to say, an English Canadian who speaks French very poorly is not always embraced with enthusiasm.

I know there are many Canadians who feel that Canadians should speak both official languages, whether they need both or not. Feel free to write that on your blog. Here, I’m sharing my perspective. In my life, I have not experienced enough necessity to learn French as to dedicate much resources to it. That is just true. It’s not a personal thing, it’s just not something on which I have chosen to dedicate my focus.

For me, language is a means to communicate. It’s not a status symbol, it’s not a means to judge one person better than another, it’s not a measure of someone’s place in society, it’s neither good nor bad. That fact that learning French has not been a priority in my life doesn’t mean I dislike French, or have any ill-will towards French. I don’t think English is better than French. But, for an international traveller I think it it has to be agreed, English is a very handy bridge-language. In Korea I heard Japanese people speaking to Koreans in English (rather than in Japanese or in Korean); in Thailand I heard Germans speaking to Thais in English (rather than in Thai or in German); in India Indians conversing with other Indians in English rather than learning the over 200 languages in their country alone. (Twenty two of them have more than a million native speakers each.) This happens in many countries and across many cultures around the world. English is a very convenient language to know. So much so, that studying other languages can become less of a priority when one’s interests are multifold. I do not have a fixation with one particular country.

I spent some time in Montreal with a new friend who is a polyglot. It was fun wandering around Chinatown watching people’s reactions to her being a Quebecois who is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, among other languages. She is gifted linguistically, and has a strong interest in learning languages. Like most people, we tend to enjoy the things that we are good at (such as one’s interest in music, sports, math. . . ) I put a good effort into learning Japanese when I lived there, but someone with a natural talent may have learned three times what I was able to with the same effort. Music makes natural sense to me, so I pick-up musical things more easily than does someone for whom it is a challenge. We’re simply all different with our strengths and weaknesses. These are not moral issues, there should be no shame involved.

I will make an effort to learn polite greetings as I travel the world, but if I were to focus on learning one language well, it would probably be Spanish, due to it’s usefulness in quite a few countries. Worldwide, there are only about 200 million speakers of French. If I decided to live in Montreal, I would certainly make a push to learn French. But I wouldn’t do it here, I would need to come to Montreal with an intermediate ability to be able to practice it without people immediately replying in English or with rapid-fire French responses I can’t comprehend. Bringing me back to my topic.

I have sometimes experienced shame in Montreal for not being able to speak French. When someone asserts, “You should be able to do this”, that can inspire feelings of, “I’m not good enough.” Especially if that feeling is already lurking just below the surface. This mostly happens when I’m trying to speak French here. What does that do? It makes me stop trying, as to avoid the shame. Instead, it is easier to play the role of ignorant tourist who doesn’t care. That makes it easier not to care. Easier to shrug-off a negative reaction to someone not being fluent.

According to shame researcher Brene Brown, shame is basically the fear of being unlovable. It is more global than guilt. Guilt is about our behaviour – I did something bad. Shame is about who we are – I am bad. And according to Brown, the problem with forcing ourselves to “not care”, is that when we are doing that, we ALSO do not have the ability to fully connect with others. That is what happened to me in Le Village. In the past 7 weeks I’ve made a number of authentic friends who I am grateful to know here in Montreal. Both Francophone and Anglophone. During my four weeks trying to do so daily when staying in the village (which is East), I connected meaningfully with only one Montrealer. I’m very thankful I was able to extend my stay and continue building friendships here from my new location with friends in Outremont.

Shame is a universal emotion experienced by all humans with the exception of sociopaths/psychopaths – those to also do not have the ability to experience empathy. Guilt can serve us purpose – to do better in the future, to make a better choice next time, to not repeat a poor behaviour. Shame does not serve us well so we need to learn the tools of shame resilience.

Wandering around Old Montreal.
Join me next time when I will continue talking about shame resilience and finally deal with the question posed in my last blog post too – what can we do to feel loved and accepted?


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