Welcome to the Land of “Bienvenue”

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

There is a running joke among my students… one of them, who often has to go to Tunney’s Pasture (a campus with only Public Service buildings located in the Ottawa West-End), renamed this complex “The Land of Bienvenue”. Why? Because every time he says “merci”, Francophones reply with the traditional franglais “bienvenue” (the literal translation for “you’re welcome”)… on the other hand, when someone tells him “merci”, he always replies with either “de rien”, “il n’y a pas de quoi” or “je vous en prie” (the correct expressions to say “you’re welcome” in French). I can imagine those people’s faces: they probably think he is an arrogant Anglo who wants to show off his unfailing French! Too bad, because they would gain to follow his example by correcting their anglicized language…

Due to its geographical location, Ottawa is a nest for contaminated French… because most Francophones in the NCR work for the Government and, consequently, speak English more often than French. Inevitably, both languages are kind of blended in a slang that is specific to this area and that is called “franglais” : a mixture of English and French… actually an unilingual Francophone would have a hard time to understand this language, which is what I refer to as “English syntax with French words”!

Yesterday, I experienced another misunderstanding of that type… I had to call the National Call Service Centre and, by force of habit, I asked for service in French (though everytime I do so, I regret it!). The young woman I spoke to was obviously an Anglophone, but hey! since she was responding to a call requesting French, I assumed she was bilingual… she was! well… kind of! During the whole conversation, I had this imperceptible feeling she was not really grasping what I was saying… being bilingual means grasping nuances and subtleties of the second language. A couple of times, I was tempted to switch to English… then I thought it would be rather rude and I kept dealing with her in my mother tongue although my discomfort was only growing bigger and bigger! She was a charming individual though : very helpful! But not quite ready to deal with technical questions addressed in French.

Later during the day, I received an email notifying me that my request had been forwarded to the Help Desk. Quelle horreur! In the Action Requested field, the question (in English) was not even close to mine… I thought if I were not taking action right away, I would eventually get an answer (but not the one I was looking for) and I would have to start over again… Since I have no patience for red-tape administration, I replied to this email re-phrasing my question IN ENGLISH this time, to make sure there would be no further misunderstanding. A few minutes later, I got a confirmation that my email had been attached to the original request. This morning, I received the answer I was looking for and I was able to move forward!

Of course, nothing is simple when dealing with the Government and I also had to check a couple of things with the Agence du Revenu du Canada. This time, I did not hesitate when I asked for service in French: this Department is located in Shawinigan, Québec and I knew I would talk to someone who would understand me. It took 5 minutes at the most and I had my answer.

There is certainly an effort on my Government’s part to accommodate its French-speaking citizens, but it seems it does not work properly. I consider myself lucky to be fluent in both, French and English, because when I cannot be understood in my mother tongue, I can easily switch to English… although I would prefer to be served in French. But, what about Francophones who are not bilingual? Do they not deserve a better service?

I made a decision this morning: from now on, I will ask for service in English when I will have questions to address to the Public Service of Canada… only because time is money and I have other things to do with my time than waste it on trying to get my message across, when I can do it in my second language and accelerate the process.

This is the Land of “Bienvenue”

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1 Comment

  1. Richard C. said,

    July 1, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I think this punctuates the difficulties of teaching AND learning a language in it’s purist form…. there can be a lack of positive reinforcement in the colloquial world. Goes to show, training also requires an awareness “how people speak…”


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