On the categories I live by, despite myself (by Kathleen Green)

I’ve been an “Anglophone” for about two and a half years now, which is as long as I’ve been living in the province of Québec. English has always been my first and dominant language, but the idea of it being a prominent part of my public identity is new. Like many Montrealers, I find myself spending time, daily, thinking and talking about language and the confounding intricacies of my linguistic public and private lives.

One of the things that I often talk about is the inadequacy of the categories “Anglophone,” “Francophone,” etc. for describing people’s linguistic selves. I often refuse to straightforwardly answer the question, “so, you’re an Anglophone?” There’s something about the word and the history of people identified as “Anglophones” here in Quebec that makes me want to distance myself from it. It sometimes seems almost pejorative. It sometimes seems to suggest a lack of ability to speak French. At the very least, it suggests a degree of outsiderness – like a person can’t be both Anglophone and a Quebecer. In any case, the category, as far as I can tell, is almost never just about a person’s first language. It’s about a lot more than that. It’s all of the stuff underneath – les sous-entendus – that I don’t want to concede when asked about my status. I’ll concede that my first language is English (which I know can be heard when I speak), but I won’t take on the rest of it. And yet, I find myself coming back to this category more and more to define myself and the way I think I should act. I don’t want to. But I do.

I live in the neighbourhood in Montréal called Rosemont – part of what I like about this neighbourhood is that it allows me to live my non-school public life (grocery stores, depanneurs, the library, local cafes) in French, without wincing and bracing myself for comments on my accent or just responses in English as though that’s the language I’d just used to ask my question (which I recently learned, from last week’s post, is called “the Montréal Switch”). In other Montréal neighbourhoods, things are different. My accent doesn’t change in Rosemont. I know that I don’t sound any more like I belong to French and French belongs to me. But I live it differently, and I like that. I like it when strangers don’t draw attention to my status as an Anglophone, even if I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of it.


Recently, I`ve started thinking about how all of this changes, depending on who I’m with and where I am. I’m in a relationship and I speak a mix of French and English with my partner. I live in Montréal and she lives in Ottawa, so our “public language” depends on where we are – in Montréal, we use French to speak to strangers, and in Ottawa, we use English. When we’re with her family (which happens often enough, because they’re close by), we speak French. When I’m with the family in public, I’ve begun noticing that my otherwise obvious ‘anglophoneness’ (which, as I’ve said, is a category I resist) is overpowered by the salience of our ‘francophoneness’ as a group. This is perhaps more prominent in Ottawa, where people of all linguistic backgrounds seem to be less sensitive to my accent and anglicisms.

I had two experiences recently – both in Ottawa – while out with the family that had me feeling self-consciously aware of my ‘anglophoneness’. Not that imposed by others, but the ‘anglophoneness’ that I seem to impose on myself. The first experience was in a café. The barista first addressed us in English, but upon hearing us converse with each other in French, she switched. Everyone else proceeded to order in French, but when it came to be my turn, I ordered in English. It would have felt strange to me to make my order in French, in Ottawa, to someone with an accent that sounds like mine. I felt equally strange, however, switching abruptly into English. She responded to me, again, in French. Later, when I talked about this exchange with my partner, I said that I thought I’d been “mistaken” for a francophone, which made me feel uncomfortable.

The next day, we all went to a restaurant together. Again, the waiter heard us speaking French and addressed us in French. Again, I can hear the familiar English accent in his voice. My guess is that his French is functional in the situations in which he uses it, and my guess is that that’s only at work. He’s sweet and we all find him charming. I speak to him in French. My girlfriend asked me afterwards why I’d done that and I wasn’t sure. I think part of me didn’t want to insult him by switching. While the barista the day before had started our exchange in English, this man had only spoken to us in French. I ordered in French. We discussed my options in French. He made some suggestions. I took them. He searched for his words. I pretended not to notice.

What stands out to me from each of these experiences is that the idea of speaking French, in Ottawa, to people who have a similar French accent to my own, made me somewhat uncomfortable. Whether I tried to signal my ‘anglophoneness’ by speaking English, or continued on in French “pretending not to notice” the other person’s accent, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that speaking French, in this context, was a kind of self-misrepresentation. I seemed to be giving myself two options – do I speak English, thereby “admitting” who I really am, or do I “pretend” to be something I’m not?

Just the other day, I had the song “Anglo” (see last week’s post, by Lauren) in my head and kept singing out “je suis une anglo!!” and laughing, to which my partner responded (in French), “I thought you weren’t an ‘anglo’.” As I wrote at the beginning of this post, this “Anglophone” category is somewhat new for me. And it’s a category that I actively resist. But what a powerful category it is. My emotional response to these two situations shows that despite the cognitive understanding that I have of these identity categories, and despite my strong desire to distance myself from them, they influence my decisions and my subconscious thinking in ways that I may not always be fully aware of.


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