By Harriet Willis
When I was younger, I used to think that it would be so much easier if everyone in the world could suddenly speak the same language. Miscommunications would become a thing of the past and travelling abroad would be almost effortless.
Years later, my hatred for French lessons has certainly diminished, but my faith in my original statement remains — of course it would be easier. But suddenly the world would be drained of culture. That’s why Quebec’s motion to encourage workers to greet customers in just French is important.
Earlier this month, the Canadian political party, Parti Québécois sponsored a motion that urges all businesses and workers to greet customers and clients with just ‘bonjour’, instead of the previous ‘bonjour-hi’. The motion tries to steer Quebec away from its newer bilingual identity and lead it back towards its French roots. Quebec has a population constructed of mostly French speakers and this motion wants to – rightly – keep it this way.
It’s not a challenging greeting. We all know what ‘bonjour’ means. For most, it’s the word required to speak a minimal amount of French. It’s what you use when you’re ten years old to convince your friends that you’re almost fluent in French. It’s simple and we all understand it — so why have some people got an issue with it?
On holiday, native English speakers need everything translating for them. Decide to dine in a Parisian restaurant, and you’ll be equipped with an English menu. Visit a market in Germany, and the vendor will be more than happy to chat with you in English. However, when international tourists visit the UK, we chuck them a menu written in English because we expect them to know the language. Fluently. We want to preserve our language, so why shouldn’t they preserve theirs?
Languages are not just dictionaries crammed with words, they’re a culture. Saying ‘bonjour’ isn’t just a greeting, it’s an identity. It’s personal. Shopkeepers saying ‘hello’ in Quebec is stripping Canada of its French identity, customer by customer.
The former French colony has previously made efforts to preserve the French language. In 2013, an Italian restaurant in Quebec was condemned for using the English word ‘pasta’, instead of the French translation. Dubbed ‘pastagate’, this event was met with criticism for being too extreme. Quebec also has certain laws in place to protect and maintain use of the French language. Businesses that sell products or provide services in Quebec must have a French business name and billboards and advertisements usually have to be written in French.
But Quebec’s fear portrayed in these actions can easily be justified. Losing a language isn’t just losing different ways to say words you already know. What if they mean something that you can’t even say in your first language? The French ‘l’ésprit d’escalier’ is for when you think of with the perfect comeback to an argument, but it’s hours too late. In German, the word ‘torschlusspanik’ is to describe the fear that time will run out before achieving your life goals. Losing a language is like losing the ability to express yourself properly.
In the 21st century, regional languages are starting to slip away and be forgotten about. In France, the Alsatian dialect is dying and Occitan is spoken in minority. In another 100 years time, it could be national languages, like French, that start to fade away as the world becomes consumed by the English language. We could start to see an enormous variety of culture being swallowed up by English.
At first glance, Quebec’s new motion may seem excessive. But imagine if your native language were disappearing. Imagine if the words that are second nature to you gradually were never be spoken to you again. Quebec is just clinging onto its identity. So please, don’t be selfish; say ‘bonjour’.
Photograph: michael_swan via Flikr