Being Monolingual in a Bilingual World

By Greg Coulter

My French, as an old roommate described hers, is “murde.”

To complicate things further, my “murde” French is Parisian. I can usually understand parts of what (Parisian) French people are saying, but I’m more or less entirely lost on anything Quebecois people say. To illustrate that, I’m less lost with “voulez-vous un sac?” while I’m much more lost with the French interviewees.

Ok, guys: I honestly have no idea what’s going on in most of these interviews. This is fine in temporal cartography (thank god I know what “ârret” means) but it’s weird being underprivileged linguistically.

With that, I really identify with Kate’s first blog, titled “Language,” in which she reflected on the Canal walk, saying:

“I mean, it wasn’t such a big deal for me, since I’m bilingual, but if an Anglophone from outside of Quebec ever listened to this interview, they wouldn’t understand half of it. Maybe they would feel overwhelmed, and maybe they would turn it off.”

As an Anglophone from outside of Canada, I really hadn’t sat threw much Quebecois French, and, Kate, I didn’t understand half of it.

The question that remains with us from Kate’s blog is how to make the language dichotomy accessible and still true to the neighbourhood. How do we let people who don’t have a command of the Quebecois accent learn from the audio walk? What, then, does a monolingual miss in his or her walk through the Point?

In a lot of ways, we choose not to make the walk accessible. We translated the narration and we have the booklet. The booklet really is the best resource for someone standing there hearing—rather than listening to—the audio.

To answer my second question: our audio walk teaches monolinguals that Montreal is a bilingual city in the most brutal way. What’s more, you really experience that bilingualism. And it’s fantastic. I was walking along completely transfixed on everything going on and not understanding a word of the audio for what had to amount to half or more of the Canal walk. I didn’t feel left out at all.

Our audio walk is a tour in the same way that you can get a museum tour or some ghost tour in New Orleans—you’re not entirely there for what’s being said; you’re there for the structure; you’re there to get the highlights; you’re there to have someone point out the little things in places you wouldn’t normally go as a tourist.

I went on a Jack the Ripper tour when I was in London. I don’t remember a thing that was said but I can tell you what it felt like looking at the final victim’s doorstep—it lingered with you. It’s the same lingering experience you get when you stand in front of the Robin Hood factory or when you look up at St. Gabriele’s church or walk under the tracks. You’re guided by the narration to experience the people who were there before you—whether that person was dismembered by one of the most infamous serial killers of the 19th century or if they just speak a kind of French you’re not totally familiar with.

Our walk might not include a stop that talks about someone’s heart being thrown in a fire, but we do spend a lot of time talking about the language divide. More over, you experience it for a whole hour. You’re told to stop and look at the churches and stand there, immersed, for a few seconds while a French interview washes over you. Then you cross under the tracks while a French interview washes over you. Turning corners through Le Bar Park, looking at downtown over the CN yard, or finally walking that last stretch of rue Charon, monolinguals walk in “blissful ignorance.”

Of course we miss things. We miss the French priest talking about kissing girls. But monolinguals also see a lot, if not more, because we also get a lot more down time that we have actively worked into the audio.

Those French speaking “ghosts” still linger us. Not in the same way as standing where Jack the Ripper fled the scene of his most gruesome murder, but you get the idea.