Dog Park Language Policy, or: how speaking French with my dog made me a real Montréalaise. (by Michaela Salmon)

Family language policies are usually all about parents wanting to pass their multiple languages onto their children. My family language policy was imposed on me by my dog.

As part of our work together, the BILD group recently met to discuss Blommaert’s recent (2014) article, “From mobility to complexity in sociolinguistic theory and method”. Blommaert calls for change, noting that the field of sociolinguistics must recognize and embrace the complexity that characterizes sociolinguistic systems. In addition, he makes note of the need for a new lot of “images and metaphors…to offer more and better analytical opportunities” (p. 9) for this new characterization of complex language use.

Which got me thinking…

Rosco

A year and a half ago, I adopted Rosco from the SPCA in Montérégie. I was curious to see what he already knew (he was an old dog), so tried out standard commands like “Sit!” and “Down!”, but there was no response. Then I remembered where I was. I asked him to “Assieds-toi!” and the reaction was immediate. So I went home with a monolingual francophone.

A few weeks after, Rosco and I discovered the dog park. And in the dog park, I found Montreal society laid out in front of me in a perfect microcosm.

Laurier
Photo: flashbracket blog

Rosco is like a child of Bill 101, who has grown up with French as his main language, but still flicks an ear occasionally when he hears me (a relatively recent immigrant) speak my language. And there are others! One family has been much more successful in fostering plurilingualism in the next generation; their 5-month-old Husky already responds to commands in French and English. Not to mention the elderly Hungarian Vizsla who is equally comfortable in both of Canada’s languages, as well as his native Hungarian. Then there’s the Concordia student who comes in with a French Mastiff, but they seem to only use English – I wonder if that dog will grow up and mourn the loss of its heritage language.

The complexity and plurality of language use in Montreal is one of my favourite things about the city. But these do not come without challenges, and for me the most pressing is the question of legitimacy. When I first arrived, I felt like an imposter every time I used French. Now I’ve settled permanently here, but I still find it hard to claim that I am a Montrealer. That’s where Rosco comes in. He gave me a real reason to use French in the public sphere. What’s more, it is necessary. And even more exciting for me – it works. I call to Rosco to viens ici from across the park and he comes (usually)! In constructing a discourse (admittedly one-sided) with my French-speaking dog, I also construct an identity in which I am a competent user of French. This simple discourse is a means of creating and (in my mind) legitimizing my status as a Montréalaise.

The language you speak with your dog is personal; you’re communicating with your best friend. If I had brought home a puppy that day there is no doubt that it would be running around responding only to English. But luckily I found Rosco, the gros pitou, instead.

I’m not really sure if this was what Blommaert had in mind when he suggested we come up with new ways to conceptualize complex sociolinguistic systems, but it seems like one place for me to start. As a language teacher and as a user of multiple languages I am acutely aware (and constantly reminded) of how problematic notions of fluency and proficiency can be. But, as I now discover, what really matters is the ability to use language as a tool to get what you want. There is no sense in measuring proficiency on a grand scale, it’s more of a binary system: do I get what I want, or don’t I? Simply: I can call myself a competent user of French because when I use it, I get the results I am looking for – as long as Rosco is feeling cooperative that day!

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