French Elsewhere in Canada

When someone thinks of French in Canada, their first thought is usually of Quebec. If pressed to think of another French-speaking part of Canada, many will think of Acadian French (the French spoken in New Brunswick and other parts of the Maritimes). However, more than a million Francophones live outside Quebec, and half a million live in Ontario.

Professor Terry Nadasdi (University of Alberta) has done a great deal of research on French in Canada, and in particular in Ontario and the Prairies. There is a distinction made between Acadian French and what is called Laurentian French. Laurentian French is the French of Québec and the French spoken in Ontario and the Western Provinces. However, Professor Nadasdi has found that the French spoken in Canada isn’t the same everywhere. In particular, he argues that, outside Quebec, Francophones are always in the minority in at least the province, if not the community itself. This distinction makes the French in these communities different from that spoken in Quebec.

Because most French-speaking communities are in the minority, they are also rarely monolingual—they need to speak English to at least some degree in order to function in their communities. Professor Nadasdi is interested in finding how this knowledge of English impacts the French spoken by these minority communities.

He was kind enough to answer some questions I had about Laurentian French outside Quebec.


Flag of Franco-Albertans

Flag of Franco-Albertans

Michael Iannozzi : What first brought you to study Laurentian French outside Quebec?

Terry Nadasdi : My interest in French outside of Quebec stems from my interest in bilingualism. For the most part, minority French and bilingualism go hand-in-hand. Since my background is in sociolinguistics, the topic provides me with an interesting opportunity to study both language use patterns of bilinguals and the impact of these patterns on linguistic forms.

MI : Why is it important to study the French spoken outside Quebec, and how do you expect it to differ from that of the major Quebecois cities that are often studied?

TN : The context in which the varieties are used is different, so we can expect some linguistic differences (related to bilingualism). That said, there will always be more similarities than differences, given that they are both Laurentian. It is important to study French in minority settings for a variety of reasons. First, it gives us insight into the language of bilinguals and gives credibility to the variety. Minority varieties are often stigmatized and performing research helps legitimize them and also reveals their complexities.

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian?

TN : I think it is generally important to study minority varieties for the reasons outlined above. It gives them legitimacy and provides information about the range of variation in Canadian French. Another reason would be to provide resources for second language learners who will interact with Franco-Ontarians and also to allow the Franco-Ontarian education system to determine the extent to which the local variety differs from the standard one (i.e. the one used in schools).

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian, and how do you expect, or how have you found they differ from Quebecois French?

TN : I guess the most important aspect is that bilingualism is central to their identity. Many speakers don’t consider themselves entirely French or English. This is generally viewed as positive. I don’t mean they are not linguistically competent in both, but rather their identity involves both simultaneously. Identify has to do with how you represent yourself when interacting with other, how you want them to see you. For example, some speakers purposely use anglicisms when speaking French to remind the listener that they are bilingual.

MI : What is the general health of French outside Quebec, and what do you feel is the best way to promote the use of French outside of Quebec in Canada?

TN : French is fairly well supported on an institutional level. However, monolingual Francophones are rare indeed. Immersion schools are highly effective, and in some regions help maintain French. Ideally, Francophones would always have their own schools. However, there are practical (financial) factors that limit this. Immersion schools are the next best thing. Access to education and cultural events are key to promoting the use of French outside Quebec. It’s also important to have media in French that can bring community members together.

MI : You have done a lot of work on minority French communities, how does the population makeup of a city or town affect the French usage and style of speakers?

TN : Generally, the more Francophones there are at the local level, the more the kind of French spoken resembles that of monolingual Francophones in Quebec. Furthermore, speakers in such communities have a better grasp on both the formal and informal registers. When there a few Francophones, the school becomes the main place where French is used and some informal variants fall by the wayside.

MI : Finally, is there any perception of French speakers outside Quebec that you’d like to clarify or change?

TN : Some believe that minority speakers have a poor mastery of both English and French. This reveals, though, a poor understanding of bilingualism and non-standard speech varieties.


Regarding the study and discussion surrounding French-language education in many provinces outside Quebec, the students of French-immersion schools are expected to learn, and speak, the Quebecois variety of French—even if they are already fluent in French, but just in an Ontarian or Prairie variety of it. There has been a great deal of discussion around the importance of letting students feel validated in speaking their own variety of French. In almost all language communities, there is a perceived “correct” way of speaking, and the other dialects or accents are considered substandard. Professor Nadasdi’s work is aiming to correct this perception. By providing research and statistics to these varieties of French, there is scientific evidence that the French isn’t subpar or of lower quality.

This effort is especially important because language is a part of identity. When older Francophones are asked how they identify they will likely say “French” or “French-Canadian”. However, younger speakers, who have grown up speaking both national languages, now often self-identify as “bilingual”. They feel that their ability to speak both French and English is not just a skill, but a part of who they are.

A sincere thank you to Professor Terry Nadasdi for taking the time to answer my questions and explain Laurentian French outside Quebec. Just as in English, where there have been stereotypes around “valley-girl”, southern American, or Newfoundland English dialects as being less intelligent; there are also stereotypes surrounding French accents. It is important to remember that the way someone speaks has no bearing on the validity or intelligence of what they are saying.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi


Languages Without Navies

Whenever I meet someone new, and I am asked what I’m studying, I tell them linguistics. The first question is usually, “oh, so how many languages do you speak?”

Linguistics is a field that most people have a vague idea of, and the understanding is that it involves studying languages (plural). This is often true, but not necessarily so. There are many monolingual linguists. If I am chatting with someone who is interested in the field of linguistics I like to steer the conversation toward language documentation and endangerment. This is for two main reasons. The first is that I am very interested in the field, and perhaps even seem competent in the subject, but the other is that while people are aware that there are a lot of languages in the world, they are fascinated to hear about the number of languages that are at risk of disappearing. My conversational tactic backfires, however, when I am asked, “So just how many languages are there in the world?”

This post will attempt to answer that very question. I’m also going to try to narrow it into the number of languages in Canada, and how many we stand to lose both in Canada and globally.

Now an exact number will never be possible to provide. The definition of a language is not as black-and-white as it may at first appear. There are dialects, varieties, and regional accents within a language; and at some point, a dialect is distinct enough to be classified as a separate language. Basically, the issue is that the line that separates a dialect of a language, and a separate language varies across time and across linguists.

Every linguist will have heard the classic quip that, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy” (it is so well-known it has a Wikipedia page in dozens of languages). Although it may appear at first as a remark about the arbitrariness of the line between dialect and language (which in many respects it is), it isn’t too far off the mark in many cases. For example, Chinese as a language appears on the Canadian census, but there isn’t a Chinese language as such. There are Mandarin and Cantonese, which are the most spoken languages; however there are many languages inside China’s borders that are more distinct from one another than French is from German. Our political and social ideas of nations each having their own language has shaped the idea that languages are tied to countries; however, this has rarely been the case.

In an attempt to provide a wobbly number, Ethnologue (a well-respected resource for linguists) lists 7,106 living languages. A Google search of “how many languages in the world” provided thousands of hits. In searching through some of the results I saw numbers ranging from 3,000 and 10,000. So, one must be careful in where to find the answer! We will go with the Ethnologue’s count.

If we narrow Ethnologue into focussing on just Canada, it lists the number of languages at 88. However, it is important to note that this is just counting the number of languages in Canada that are not immigrant languages. That is, the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Canada, and the languages they bring are not counted in the 88. The only 2 European languages are English and French because they are what Ethnologue calls “institutional”, meaning the official languages of the country.

That means that there are, by Ethnologue’s count, 86 indigenous languages in Canada. Which is great, and sounds like a lot, were it not for the text that follows:

“Of these, 4 are institutional, 10 are developing, 2 are vigorous, 42 are in trouble, and 30 are dying.”

Now that is not a heartening score for our languages!

A quick look at the USA’s scores may provide some further mixed feelings:

215 languages. 4 institutional, 7 developing, 2 vigorous, 61 in trouble, 141 are dying.

You can pick any country, and the list will look quite similar, with the vast majority either in trouble or dying. For an even more troubling reflection of the situation, Ethnologue provides a summary of languages by their status: 6 languages are spoken by 29% of the planet, and 101 by 60%. On the other end of the spectrum, 2% of the planet speak 4,780 languages, and the bottom 203 languages listed are spoken by an average of 171 speakers each. (Could you say something here like: “This powerful statistic brings to light how our global language diversity situation really is at risk.”

In Canada’s case the 42 languages in trouble, and the 30 that are dying fall into the bottom 2% of the world’s languages. Languages defined as “in trouble” have a loss of “intergenerational transmission”, which is just a way of saying the language is not being passed from parent to child. This loss signals the death knell of any language. Elders may be able to speak a language vigorously, but they will eventually be gone. If children don’t learn to speak the language, then the language will pass with the elders. Even worse, a language that is labelled “dying” has all its remaining speakers over child-bearing age, which makes it much more difficult to transmit the language to the youngest generation.

Keep in mind that of Canada’s 88 languages, 72 are either “in trouble” or “dying”. And of the planet’s 7,106 languages, more than half fall into these categories. There is a widespread shorthand among linguists to describe the situation of language endangerment, and that is that half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. However, unless something dramatic is done in Canada we will go from 88 to 16 in the next 85 years.

I’m sorry the future seems so bleak. However, there are many amazing people working on remarkable projects to try to reverse the tide, or at least slow its progression, and I encourage you to look into these (and of course I’m here to help you do this through the CLM blog!). The next time someone asks me, “So just how many languages are there in the world?” I should probably reply, “Fewer than there were a couple weeks ago, but more than there will be in a couple more weeks.”


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi