On language

I’m travelling, one of my favourite things to do in this life. One of the best aspects of travelling, for me because I mostly travel solo, is it opens my mind to contemplate the world, life and my place in it. On this trip, a reoccurring theme that I’ve returned to a number of times is the curious nature of language.

Those who know me will know I am in love with words and language in all its forms. Whether it’s one of the great works of literature, a cheap trashy paperback, a song, poetry or just conversation with a friend- new or old, the use of words and language fills my soul. This is one of the reasons I dabble in my small way with trying to write.

But on this trip, it has been brought home to me that a large part of the allure of words- is being understood and feeling like one belongs. A few times this trip I have got to experience something that rarely happens in my anglophone world… that is not speaking the local language.

First in Hong Kong, where English was available, but not dominant. I speak NO Chinese. A fact that I am a little ashamed of given I live on the edge of Asia. I fancy myself enlightened and evolved, but here was proof that I’m just another white, westerner expecting the world to bend to my will. Sitting on the train, surrounded by people all happily chatting amongst themselves, and I couldn’t join in, or even eavesdrop- it was an odd experience.

Then I arrived in Canada, the wonderful and famously bilingual nation in the north. Here I was a little better equipped. My high school French meant that I wouldn’t starve, and would be able to ask where the station was with confidence. But, it was in conversation that again the arrogance of my anglophone upbringing reared it’s ugly head. Sitting in bars and cafes in Québec to be included in conversation, they needed to change to English (which they did happily), but I was the visitor. I thought about what would happen if one of these people came to Melbourne, would my friends and I change to their language to make them feel welcome? Of course the answer is “No”.

Even amongst fellow anglophones, there are gaps in communication. This was brought home to me when I got chatting with a woman also from Melbourne. I’ve been back in predominantly English speaking Ontario for a while now, so no more guilt about my appalling French. But in talking to this woman who was a stranger, was the most relaxed and restful conversation I’ve had in weeks. The familiar accent, that I didn’t know I missed; the ability to just talk without having to explain slight variations in meaning of words and phrases, and knowing that I was unlikely to inadvertently offend her was wonderful.

So what does this all mean? Or are these the ramblings of a crazy woman that mean nothing? I think what it means is that language and words are great but more important is communication. It’s how we as people connect with each other. It also means I need to stop being lazy and maybe expand my knowledge of other languages, even a little.

10 Replies to “On language”

  1. You are fortunate to have run into good people in Quebec. Although the same can be said here in Ontario in reverse. When I used to travel to Quebec for work, I was always met with resistance and total negativity because I spoke no French. A situation I would apologize for but would be met with ignorance and usually ignored completely. As I said though coming this way from Quebec to Ontario I am sure the French speaking Canadian gets a similar reaction.

    1. I think this is coming from long time feud between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec and how Anglophones have been seen as oppressors in Quebec for a while.

      Old people would tell you horrid tales of how the French were basically misrepresented at every level of the society and kept uneducated by biased laws and regulations. Things have been sour and in some places, and especially for older people who have been through this kind of segregation, this is bad memories. This is what is fueling separatists more than anything else…

      Fortunately things are slowly getting better, although perhaps more in Montreal than any other city in QC, but as more migrants are seeping into the Quebec society, there is less and less of this angry/resentful behavior. At least that’s what I have seen here, and although I agree that the vibe of Montreal, being a multicultural city that has more immigrants than locals, is different than other parts of the Province, I believe it’s getting better and should get better and better as times goes by and new generations are born.

      1. I remember people telling me how they were forbidden to speak French with other French-speaking people at work, and how the Anglophones had the best opportunities for work and education. This changed during the sixties with the Revolution Tranquille… Also the Catholic church had a big power over the masses, and this has also receded since then. So, older people have sour memories of that time, doesn’t excuse them for are acting like assholes, but explains things a little… 😉

    2. It might also be a general prejudice against people from Ontario. I had a cab driver who doubles as a tour guide. He couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. But then he took a call from another client who happened to be from Ontario- gotta tell ya he was not a fan. It could have just been him… but then maybe it’s like Victoria vs NSW back home.

  2. Interesting… I’ll just say, that it feels pretty Canadian of you to feel sorry for not speaking the local language… No need really, and I hope I didn’t make you feel uncomfortable on my end. Language is a beautiful thing, and I share your love of literature but it’s also just a mean to communicate, so it doesn’t matter what language you use as long as you manage to exchange! 🙂

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