Friday, December 23, 2016

Justin Trudeau: French vs. English

Justin Trudeau has some interesting things to say about the differences between French and English, which I discovered in his autobiography "Common Ground." This is a subject of especial interest to me right now since I am attempting to learn French.

On page 67 he writes:
During my years at (his Montreal school) Brebeuf I began to think about language in a different manner. To sovereigntists (in favor of the Quebec province separating from the rest of Canada which they almost did in 1995) language was a major political issue as much as a medium of communication. You were either an anglophone or a francophone, and each label aligned you with different cultural values and perhaps different goals for Quebec. Until then I hadn't thought of myself as either a francophone or an anglophone; in my bilingual milieu in Ottawa, it simply hadn't seemed necessary to define myself one way or the other. 
At Brebeauf and Quebec generally, the climate made me mindful of the language I chose to speak, depending on whom I was speaking to and what the subject might be. With this new awareness I began to monitor the words that popped up in my thoughts and my dreams, at times second-guessing myself as I spoke. Were the words French? Should they be English? Decisions I had once made without thinking became deliberately conscious.

On the next page he writes...
I have always loved both languages, but I came to realize how very different they are, not just in the way they permit a person to express thoughts but also in the way they guide the creation of those thoughts. For example, French grammar requires you to know how your sentence is going to end before you start to speak or write, which imposes a certain rigor on your expression. If your sentence begins this way, it must end that way. This is why so many French intellectuals seem to be channelling their inner Proust even when they are speaking casually to a mass audience on television. 
In English, I always felt that the grammar allows you to get to almost any conclusion, regardless of how you start your sentence. Halfway through your sentence, you can change the direction of your thought without breaking too many rules. There can be a certain sloppiness in English that is almost non-existent in proper French, where the complexity of the concordance between words and within clauses requires sustained attention. Perhaps this explains why my father, who was never one to mince words on such matters, told me that he found me less persuasive in English compared to in French. Many years later I thought about his comment when I took part in a debate that the McGill Debating Union conducted in French. Afterwards my teammates told me I was a more formidable debater in French than in English, which, coming from anglophones, I took as a backhanded compliment. 
Like many bilingual people, I sometimes flip an internal switch from one language to the other in a seemingly arbitrary way. For example, I do math only in French, because all my life, that was the language of my math classes. When I was teaching French out west, and confronted the challenges associated with getting Vancouver teenagers interested in studying a language that seems so far from their daily lives, I used to point out the more romantic aspects of the French language. When telling someone that you miss them, you say "Tu me marquees." So you is the subject of the sentence - as opposed to the English equivalent, "I miss you," in which it's all about me. It may seem a subtle difference, but hormonally charged teenagers sure got it.

Très intéressant.

Here he is debating in French. I'm able to pick up only about 20% of what is being said here.





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