Archive for January 2009
The British Prime Minister was in China and India last week and in stark contrast with other world leaders who have been in a rather gloomy mood lately, warning us of hard times, deficits and sacrifices, Gordon Brown was in Asia to give out gifts like a pale yet jolly English Santa. One gift, I should say.
The gift of English.
“In total, 2 billion people worldwide will be learning English by 2020. But there are millions more on every continent who are still denied the chance to learn English”, said the Prime Minister. “So today I want Britain to make a new gift to the world: a commitment to help anyone – however impoverished and however far away – to access the tools they need to learn English.”
You know times are rough when people start giving away their product.
Because the English language is a product. It is a commodity that is bought and sold on the world markets. In 2005, back when he was chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown himself said that English was the UK’s biggest foreign currency earner. The value of English to Britain’s economy was second only to North Sea oil, according to the British Council.
English language teaching in the strictest sense is a lucrative service industry, with annual global revenues of billions of dollars a year. International education exports like textbooks – twenty-five percent of books sold in China are English learning-related! – and international students who come to study in British universities are worth over 28 billion pounds a year to the British economy.
But that doesn’t even come close to giving you an idea of the value of the English language for Britain and other English-speaking countries.
English on its own is useless, like Microsoft Windows on a computer that doesn’t have any other software. The real value of English is that it is an essential technology for workers and countries that want to access globalized commerce networks and western science. It’s a platform. And just like when you choose a Mac over a PC or the Xbox over the Wii, your choice is a commitment to continue buying other related products and technology built on the English language platform.
When people adopt the English platform they are also adopting English education, English books and magazines, English engineering and English technology.
The 1990’s and the 00’s was a moment of unprecedented profitability for anything related to the English language. « Nearly a third of the world population will all be trying to learn English at the same time”, observed linguist David Graddol in a report to the British Council on the state of English in 2006. « These children belong to a moment in world history – unprecedented and probably unrepeatable – at which students throughout formal education – from early primary school, secondary school, and students in college and university – are all learning English at beginner or intermediate level. »
“Unprecedented and unrepeatable”. “A moment in world history.” A bubble?
English, like oil and bandwidth, is inextricable from global commerce and trade. The demand for English and the price people are willing to pay for it rises with the volume of trade in the globalized market. When the market breaks down, as it just did, demand for all the lubricants of global trade – oil, capital, English – drops, and the value of those commodities fall.
But in the case of English, the market broke down just as it was being flooded with new discount providers like the Philippines and Singapore. Everyone was trying to get a piece of the English boom. The United Arab Emirates alone opened at least five English language universities in the last decade. Even France offers English-only programs in its universities, merde!
A market with no room for growth, saturated with way to much capacity is hit by a sharp and sudden drop in demand.
Pop goes the bubble?
Is a near universal skill still valuable? How about when hundreds of millions people across Europe and Asia who have spent considerable time and money to learn English find themselves unemployed?
English is probably too deeply entrenched in the mechanisms of commerce and science to completely lose it’s position as the global language. But during the last few decades just about every country in the world built up its ability to teach itself English through it’s public school system. There is no longer the absolute necessity to purchase English on the private market.
So how do you keep your market share when your product is no longer competitive? You give it away and flood the market.
That’s exactly what Gordon Brown did last week.
There are two schools of thought in Québec when it comes to the historical significance of the British conquest of 1759. The so-called Montréal school of thinkers consider it was a historical, economic and social tragedy that stunted the development of French-canadian culture and society. According to the Québec school of thought it spared Québec from the chaos and violence of the French Revolution and gave it access to British government and democracy.
I’m more partial to the second school’s interpretation. The conquest did result in two centuries of rule by a lunatic papist theocracy propped up by a cotery of racist British robber-barons, but at the end of the day, we’re still here, we’re still speaking French and we can only imagine how much bloodier things would’ve been if New France had been conquered by the Spaniards or the Dutch.
The conquest was a thing. It happened. What are you gonna do about it?
We’ll I know at least one thing I wouldn’t do about it is celebrate it.
Yet, that’s exactly what Québec City is getting ready to do.
The National Battlefields Commission is organizing a full-scale re-enactment of both the battle and the siege of Québec this summer to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the British Conquest of New France.
I get it. The whole thing is historically-minded. There’s going to be conferences by scholars. The website says they are ‘marking’ the anniversary, not having a party. The poster for the event shows two smiling generals shaking hands and the program includes a comedy cabaret with Wolfe and Montcalm impersonators.
Yet you have to be seriously clueless to think that a full-scale re-enactment of the mother of all of Québec’s many historical traumas and unresolved ‘issues’ is going to go down without drama. Come on! It was only a few months ago that some people nearly lost it because Paul McCartney went on the Plains to sing in English!
The Réseau de Résistance des Québécois and filmmaker Pierre Falardeau have already given the organisers an ultimatum: “This is why the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (RRQ) is as of now on the war path, to be ready to get into action on the 15th of February if the said commission does not back down by then and announce the cancellation of the event.”
I can already imagine the the battalion of Jeunes Patriotes with flags and gaz masks charging the middle aged suburban Americans in tights playing the role of the british troops. Maybe Amir Khadir will attack the Wolfe impersonator with his shoes.
This said, I do think they have a point. The Conquest is a very emotional and significant historical event. In the country with the Occident’s strongest and best organized secessionist movement, you’d think people would take that into consideration.
Compare this to the emotionally charged and masterfully played lead up to Barack Obama’s inauguration. This week we saw the president-elect re-enact the train trip Abraham Lincoln took to Washington on the eve of the Civil War and a massive concert was held in front of the Lincoln monument where Martin Luther King gave the most famous american speech ever. All of this evokes slavery, civil war and segregation, but in the context of the the first black president’s swearing in, America is actually creating a brand new historical moment. A moment of reconciliation.
Over here the Canadian government thinks it can defuse the memory of the Conquest by treating it like the emotional equivalent of the war of the Peloponese and turning it into a vaudeville. This is the opposite of what the Americans are doing. This is trivializing the past. It is disrespecting the many Québécois who still have the memory of the consequences of the Conquest stuck in their throats.
Next year: the re-enactment of the American Indian genocide!
Just about as long as I’ve had this blog I’ve been using Google Alerts, a service that notifies you whenever some word or words of your choice pops up anywhere on the Internet. I’ve been using to cover the AngryFrenchBeat, monitoring what’s being said about Québec, Montréal and Beyoncé on the Web.
One of the words I’ve been keeping track of for a few months is Pure Laine. According to wikipedia, Pure Laine is “a politically and culturally charged phrase referring to the people having original ancestry of the French-Canadians.” Apparently, at least according to Sun Media columnist Micheal Den Tendt, “many “pure-laine” Quebecers have always believed — that they, the descendants of original French settlers, are the only true Quebecois.”
The concept of the Pure Laine (or Pur Laine, I track the two spellings) was at the center of the infamous Jan Wong controversy. In 2006 she wrote in the Globe & Mail about the Dawson College shooter Kimveer Gill: “the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”
Well, it seems the English Canadian media has been doing a little bit of projection, here. In the six months or so that I’ve been tracking the use of Pure Laine on the Internet, the racial purity of the Québécois has been an EXCLUSIVELY English-Canadian preoccupation.
The term Pure Laine came up in 56 english-language web pages, that’s more than twice as often as it’s use on french-language websites.
In thirty-seven cases – that’s 70% of the time – Pure Laine is used in English to describe the Québécois of Franco-Catholic ancestry. This seems to be a very important concept in the English-canadian worldview. Whenever Québec, canadian politics or language is discussed, the Pure Laine come up. Not the Québécois as a civic nation. Not French-speakers as a linguistic group. Pure Laine Québécois as an ethnic group. The Québécois as a race.
Of course, the people using the the term Pure Laine deny being the ones preocupied by the ethnic purity of the Québécois. Nearly a third of the uses of Pure Laine were by people who felt they could state with absolute authority that “Pure laine is what some francophones from Quebec like to call themselves to state that they have pure, undiluted French blood and that they can trace their lineage all the way back to the original settlers who sailed over from France in the 1600’s”
What do bloggers know, you say? Well one of them (one of only three english-language sources who challenged the ‘fact’ of Québec’s preoccupation with ethnic purity) kindly dug up a quote from some Calgary West Reform Party MP called Stephen Harper who, back in 1995, declared in the House of Commons: “Obviously, given the ethnic and sociocultural make-up of modern Quebec society, only the pure laine Quebecois could arguably be considered a people.”
Whatever happened to Stephen Harper?
In both English and French, Pure Laine has entered the vocabulary as a synonym for ‘true’, ‘old school’ or, more appropriatly, ‘dyed-in-the-wool’. It came up to describe “Pure Laine Montrealers“, “Pure Laine federalists“, “Pure Laine proletarians“, and even Paul McCartney’s “Pure Laine Heterosexuality“. In French the concept of “Pure Laine Shawin” – as in the good people of Shawinigan, the home of former Prime minister and savior of Canadian federalism Jean Chrétien – came up no less than four times…
Such use of Pure Laine accounted for one third of the 25 times the word came up in French. It was also used 33% of the time to discuss the Québécois, and another 33% of the time to describe – get this – WOOL.
In French, the term Pure Laine was used 8 times to describe people of ‘white-french-catholic-north-americans-of-franco-french‘ ancestry. Five of those who used the word, however, would not be considered Pure Laine themselves by that definition…
The word is used, for example, in the journal Voir in a review of a book by Senegal-born comedian and marine biologist (yep.) Boucar Diouf about, precisely, the different prejudice and misunderstandings held by the Québécois, “Pure Laine and also immigrant”.
Imam Abou Hammaad Sulaiman Dameus Al-Hayiti, a black Québécois convert to a radical strand of Islam who’s been in the news lately, uses it to defend himself in La Presse against accusations of racism and hate speech. His mother and grand-mother, he reminded the journalist, are Pure Laine.
Kim Myung-Sook uses the term Pure Laine to describe herself in her fascinating blog about the identity crisis of the children of massive international adoption who are just now coming of age all over the western world. “Rejected/Sold by Korea. Bought/assimilated by the Québécois. I am a transracial adoptee, a reject of korean society recycled into a Québécoise Pure Laine with the appearance of an asian. Ex-Korean, false Korean, Korean assimilated by the Québécois.”
“Un show Québécois Pure Laine” is also used as a caption to a picture of hip hop crew Loco Locass (who’s members are not all, as a matter of fact, Pure Laine) and as the theme of a series of videos by comedian Guy Nantel. Whether Nantel’s objective was the glorification of the Pure Laines’ racial superiority, I’ll let you be the judge of that…
As for examples of Pure Laine Québécois claiming Pure Laine-ness, exalting the purity of their roots and the special privilege that comes or should come with the ability to trace one’s ancestors to Samuel de Champlain and his crew, not a single one. Pas un. Nada. Zéro.
That definition of Pure Laine, it seems, is a purely English-language concept…
At the Dépanneur, the Caisse Populaire and waiting in line at the SAAQ
In business situations, there is one rule and it is the same as anywhere else in the world: The customer is always right.
The Good Faith Clause: For months I had to visit the Royal Victoria Hospital twice a week to se a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist. Both were English-speaking. The Ocupational therapist always greeted me in French, apologized profusely for not speaking it better, and tried really hard. The physio greeted me in English and made no effort to find out my preference. I eventually asked the Occupational Therapist if we could speak English. She had been very respectful and made a sincere effort but my English was better than her French and we mutually agreed that the communication would be easier in English. Because the physio never made an effort, neither did I. I only spoke French with her and she eventually had to deal with it.
At the Yacht club, Bingo and your local chapter of the Bilderberg group
When speaking to Montreal Anglos in social situations, I always speak French. The Anglo usually responds in one of three ways:
French: The Anglo answers in fluent French and that’s that.
Franglais: The Anglo responds in a half French/half English bastard tongue. I can understand him/her, so it’s cool. I, however, stick with French. Franglais is great for Hip Hop lyrics but I have no inclination to trade my ability to converse in two of the world’s greatest international language for the regional creole of Federal government secretaries.
English: My fellow conversationalist answers in English, I respond in French, he continues in English. We both understand each other, we are both speaking the language of our choice. All is good.
The rules above are exactly the same for Anglo-Québécois addressing Francophones.
How to avoid being labelled a Maudit Anglais if you don’t speak French
French-speaker in Québec have very high expectation for their Anglo neighbors. They’ve been telling us they are fluently bilingual for three decades now and, get this, we believe them. That is why some visitors to Montreal and Québec sometimes faced with an aggressive response when speaking English. To avoid this use accents and dress like a tourist. If you can pull off a British or Australian accent people will not expect you to be able to speak French.
Sri Lankans, Philipinos, Canadians and other Immigrants
There are two schools of thought concerning the proper way to communicate with our new countrymen and women.
The pseudo-cosmopolitans: They believe that everyone who is not from Québec speaks English and that they are ‘helping’ immigrants by communicating with them in English. This school of thought is very widespread in Québec City and other places that have little to no contact with actual immigrants.
The AngryFrenchGuys: We assume immigrants are just like real people and would appreciate to understand the social conventions of their new home as soon as possible, therefore we only speak French with them.
English-speaking visitors to Québec frustrated by the Switch – the habit of Francophones of switching to English as soon as they hear the slightest hint of an accent your speech – should refer to the rules above. The Francophone can switch to English if he wants to, but who is forcing YOU to switch with him or her? Just keep on speaking French! That or pretend to be a German tourist.
These are the rules. Put them on the fridge. Carry them in your wallet. Now you know.