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With so many languages out there, which one(s) to learn? (#378)

With so many languages out there, how can one chose which one(s) to learn?

This is one of those never-ending questions that you hear others endlessly ask themselves.

I personally do not think there is a right or wrong answer, but perhaps there are better answers than others.

I was lucky that I had both English and French from almost the beginning.  Yet I realize that others in Canada do not necessarily have the opportunity to receive a footing in both languages so early on and at the same time.

However, I too had language-learning experiences with other languages as an adult.  In addition to the above two, I dabbled in four others, exploring whether or not I would like them, and if I would find them useful.

I studied and used Chinese for many years (in fact the majority of my adult life), I studied Arabic for a couple of years, I gave Spanish a shot for a couple of years (a few lessons, but mostly concentrated on reading the news for a year), and I gave Portuguese at shot at the same time as I tried Spanish.

Yet, I dropped Arabic owing to the fact that it would require a huge continued effort (a part-time job in and of itself) – time which I simply did not have owing to the fact that I was already concentrating on Chinese and my career.

I also dropped Spanish and Portuguese because of a lack of time.  Yet I was happy with the progress I made within a year of studying them.  My French gave me a huge jump-start on Spanish and Portuguese.  It allowed me to rapidly make progress in reading them (to the point that I do not have many difficulties when reading a newspaper in Spanish or Portuguese).    I’m cool with that, and I don’t have any burning desire to take them further.

What langauge(s) would I recommend to Canadian Anglophones who wish to learn a second or third language?

As I said above, I do not think there are right or wrong answers, but there perhaps are better answers than others.

First and foremost, I recommend you learn what interests you.  If you do not have an interest, you will not feel stimulated in your studies, and it simply won’t fly.

The unique situation with learning French in English Canada:  

Yet, if you’re Anglophone in Canada, I would recommend you explore French before looking at other languages.  You have more French language-learning materials and cultural references available to you in Canada than for any other languages – making French an easy(er) moving target to tackle than other languages.

At the very minimum, you at least would be able to rapidly come to the conclusion whether or not French interests you for continued studies.

Building on this, it is sometimes easier to take an interest in French than other languages because, contrary to other languages, you can consider yourself to be learning “your own” language if you take the plunge with French.

Because French is one of our country’s two languages, as an Anglophone Canadian, you would not be learning a “foreign” language.  You are able to immediately embrace the fact that you are learning your country’s own language.  You can claim ownership over it, and be proud of learning and speaking it.

At the end of the day, you can say “This too is my, and my country’s language”.  Other languages do not afford you that “feeling” (learning languages and emotions are closely linked… You have to feel good and proud about what you learn).

French also opens the doors wide-open to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian right from the beginning.  If you can attain an upper-intermediate level of French, you should be able to quickly learn to read the above other languages within a year or so.

Beyond French, I would also consider the following options in deciding what language to tackle:

  • Do I still have an interest in other languages, and which one?

Even if you are interested in a little-spoken language, such as Latvian or Faroese, you still may be fascinated by the learning it.  Thus why hold back if that’s what you get off on?

  • Do I think I would use it often?

Most Arab-speaking people I know who (or those who I am likely to run into) already speak English or French.  Therefore I felt it kind of negated the “need” for me to learn it, and my interest sort of dropped off.

Yet in the case of Chinese,  most people who I would be interacting with (and do interact with) in Chinese would / do not speak English or French.  The need for me to speak Chinese has always been there (for personal interactions, career, and relationships).

From my travels in Mexico and South America I quickly came to the realization that most people there also do not speak English or French – hence making it obvious to me that Spanish and Portuguese would be useful languages to learn.

  • What resources are available to learn the language?

If I were to suddenly find myself in a love-affair with Dzongkha (the national language of the country of Bhutan), that may be fine and dandy.  But if it were impossible to find find comprehensive learning and practice materials in Canada, then it would make the task all that more difficult.

In the end, owing to a lack of available materials, I could end up wasting precious time (perhaps years and years) learning the language, whereas I could have possibly mastered another “material-ready” language in half the time.

These are just my few thoughts on the issue.

Again, for those in English Canada, I would certainly encourage you to at least explore French as a list-topper.  It will open a billion doors for you in Canada (employment, full participation and a feeling of cultural ownership over your own country, travel and relocation opportunities, etc, etc.).  In addition, it will make learning many other languages much easier.

I firmly believe that knowing other languages has afforded me more opportunities than any single university degree could have ever afforded me.  I would have never done what I have done (or what I am doing) without having both English and French.

Adding a third language on top of that (Chinese) pushed the global-envelope open even further.

Hopefully this helps to serve as a bit of encouragement in your own language-learning adventure.   Sometimes it takes hearing about others’ stories to help find that little bit of extra “footing”, “context” and “incentive” in the realm of language learning.


Maritime population / community distribution based on language (#339)

An interesting map of population and community distribution based on linguistic lines (mother tongue) in the Maritime provinces.

It’s a bit older now, but the overall Maritimes population distribution has not changed very much since 2001, so it could still be considered reliably accurate.

I marked the credits on the map and added it to the post on Acadian accents as reference.

Pop dist Ac 1

The Quebec Board of the French Language (#337)

If you are from Québec, if you are Francophone elsewhere in Canada, or if you have studied French to any of the advanced levels in Canada, the chances are very likely that you are well aware of the Québec Board of the French Language.

The French name is the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF).

In media circles, the OQLF is sometimes known by it’s sensationalized nick-name,“the language police”.  In my opinion, such a nickname is a bit “unfair”, and you’ll soon see why.

The OQLF is a provincial government agency, and has had a mission since the mid-1960s to counter a degradation of the quality of French used in day-to-day life.

I’ll give you the perfect example of what I mean

In some of the French videos I made myself for this blog (here and here for example), you’ll notice I have a little “habit” of slipping in the English word anyway into French sentences (as do many Francophones in Québec and around Canada).  “Anyway” has become almost part of casual, colloquial everyday vocabulary.

Letting slip the odd little English word from time-to-time certainly is not the end of the world, nor should it be considered the end of the world.  In such cases, it is as natural to do so in French as it is to say “Rendez-vous”, “resumé” (instead of C.V.), or “déjà vu” in English.  Everyone does it (however, in French, I probably say “alors” or “bon” much more than I say “anyway” – since they are the French equivalents).

Yet, from what I’m told, the situation of inserting English words into English used to be much worse 55 years ago at the time the OQLF was founded.  It was so bad in fact, that it was feared that French in Québec (and in Canada) would soon reach a point of no return in the sense that there were fears it could morph into a new dialect – a hybrid French/English dialect.

Don’t get me wrong, we were not at the point of French not becoming some strange new way of speaking, but things looked like they could have eventually gone in that direction if there was not an organization to concentrate on the the public quality of French used.

The OQLF’s mission was simply to prevent this from happening, and to “support and encourage” the use of proper French in spheres where French was expected to be used.

This meant the OQLF’s role was to reinforce language quality and use in institutionalized settings, such as schools, hospitals, government offices, and areas of life regulated by government regulations.

And the efforts seem to have paid off.

The OQLF cannot tell you what you can or cannot verbally say (that would not be cool! – and it would be highly illegal).  But they can encourage you to use proper French in institutionalized settings – and hey, why not?  I’m game!

The bureau does so by providing resources and tools (such as one of the best and most comprehensive online French and French-English dictionaries in the world), public reminders, and assistance to individuals and enterprises who are working in French-language settings.

This is why, right from the beginning, in schools students know what correct terms to use, and society’s general quality and use of French has been enhanced.

This is also why, on an “institutionalized” or “formalized” level, French in Canada does not use anglicisms (or relatively very few) in higher level French (ie: in advertisements, in government or formal publications, etc).

Quite surprisingly, France does find it acceptable to use English words in formal settings and publications.

At an institutionalized level, you will find in France, one will use “weekend”, “email”, “shopping”, “parking”, etc.

However, in Québec, and Canada (as a result of guidance from the OQLF), we say “fin de semaine”, “couriel”, “magasinage”, and “stationnement”. 

(Note:  The OQLF’s influence is felt elsewhere in Canada as well.  Thus Francophones and those learning French in other provinces also look to the OQLF’s guidance, and thus it has influence and a “standardizing” effect across the country – not just in Québec).

For lack of a better term, the OQLF is the “public promoter for the correct use and implication of French in the public sphere”.   The “public sphere” is different than the “private sphere”.  But of course there is a natural a spill-over effect from the public sector to the private sector (hence why I probably subconsciously say “alors” much more often than “anyway” when I’m having informal, private conversations with friends).

So as you can see, the OQLF is not some baton-waving cop who is foaming at the mouth to beat you over the head.  They simply are a great resource and public reminder for ways in which to properly speak and use French.


Where the OQLF does derive its nickname “the language police” is from the agency’s “active involvement” in public signage and workplace language of administration (applicable to companies over a certain size or which deal with the public).   Québec has a law which states that French much be the dominant signage in the public sphere (while allowing English to also appear, but at half the size of French).   If there is breach in the law, the OQLF is the agency mandated to deal with it.  The OQLF will issue guidance, then warnings, then in very rare cases, a possible fine.

Again, such cases are very rare, and this is only one part of the OQLF’s overall mission.  But when it happens, the person on the receiving end sometimes gets their nose very out of joint, makes a huge deal of it, gets the media involved, and the whole thing blows up.

That’s not to say that the OQLF hasn’t been a little overzealous on occasion also.  You may recall a couple of years ago, a rogue employee at the OQLF told someone they could not use the word “pasta” on their menu because it is not a “French” word.   Well, if that didn’t blow up like a nuclear test in the South Pacific!!  After a huge public backlash, I think some heads probably rolled at some level within the OQLF.

Fortunately, such cases are very few and far between.  Most people in Québec still view the OQLF in their role as a positve resource and language-support agency rather than in their capacity as a workplace-enforcement agency (yet elsewhere in Canada, it is only the latter which disproportionately and unfairly gets all the attention).

Check out the OQLF’s online resources.  They are comprehensive, informative, and well organized.

A brief history of France’s former languages, and how they helped to shape our French in Canada (#217)

Not long ago I came across two well-made YouTube videos.  One offers samples of France’s 28 different accents.  The other offers samples of 45 languages which are native to France — from the three major French language groups.

In a nutshell, French(as we know it today) is a relatively young language.  It was based in part on languages / dialects which existed in regions in and around Paris for centuries.  Modern French came about when it took elements from the languages / dialects of the Paris area, as well as a number of other nearby and closely related dialects.  In broad terms, they became mixed together in a big language stew, and voilà! — Modern French was born, primarily in the 1600s & 1700s.   (This is an oversimplified summary of what happened – but that’s basically it in a nutshell).

When I use the word “dialect” or “language”, my choice of words is a question of semantics.  Here I’ll use the word “language” (instead of “dialects”) because speakers of many of the dialects referred to in this post would not have necessarily been able understand one another (which is a characteristic of what constitutes separate languages).

Prior to the birth of Modern French (in the 1600s & 1700s), all the languages which existed in the Northern half of France were descended from a “super-group” of languages called the Languages of Oïl (les langues d’oïl).  These 20+ languages existed for roughly 1,500 years, well into the 1700s — at which point modern French began to supersede and replace them.


Even though the Languages of Oïl were related, if you were to travel across Northern France in the year 600, 1000, 1500 or even 1700, you would have possibly traveled through 20 different language zones.  Likely you would not have been able to understand the locals as you crossed from one language zone to another (at that time in history, French was not the common every-day language of France).   However, when French began to supersede these other languages, French spread beyond Paris to the outlying regions, and the government began to forcefully suppress (basically wipe-out through forced assimilation) all the regional languages.

A very similar phenomenon existed in the Southern half of France.  Whereas the related languages of the North fell under the umbrella of the Languages of Oïl, in Southern France, there was a different group of many related languages called the Occitan Languages.

A region of Eastern France also had a separate grouping of languages called the Franco-Provençal (or Arpitan) Languages. 

Unlike the Oïl Languages, the Occitan and Franco-Provençal languages did not contribute as much to the formation of Modern French (if you listen to recordings of the Occitan & Franco-Provincial languages, they sound very different from French – with sounds and pronunciations much closer to Italian, Latin, Catalan and Spanish — whereas the Oïl Languages have sounds and pronunciations much more related to Modern French).

Also, just like the other Oïl Languages, the Occitan and Franco-Provençal languages were forcefully repressed by the government, starting in the 1700s, and replaced by Modern French.

Although all these languages of France were wiped out over the course of 300+ years, the inhabitants of each language region retained many different accents which can be associated with the original languages.  Thus, as you travel throughout France today, you will hear many different French accents, sometimes very different from one another.

What I find extremely interesting is that there are still some individuals in France who still speak the former regional languages.  Depending on the language, their numbers can be quite small.  Native speakers are often senior citizens, and some languages may have almost no speakers left (with the only remnants existing only in old audio recordings made 40 to 90 years ago).

How this fits into Canada’s style of French:

In the 1600s and 1700s, the original settlers to Ontario and Québec brought with them the languages of the Paris region (at least how it was spoken in Paris at that time – which is different from how it is spoken in Paris today).  The Parisian language was the main language spoken in New France (the French colonies of North America), but there were significant numbers of other Languages from France such as Norman, Saintogeais, and Gallo.  Settlers also came from other areas in the Northwest and North-central parts of France.   Paris’ language became the standard norm in Québec and Ontario in the 1600s and 1700s, but it carried heavy language influences from other regions of Northwestern and North-central France as people mixed and added their own linguistic nuances to the overall pot.  It was this mixing of Northern France medieval languages which gives us our way of speaking French in Canada today.

Consequently, there are two major forms of French in Canada today (each with many varieties of accents and colloquialisms).

  1. One grouping covers Québec, Ontario, the Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta) and British Columbia.  This is also the dominant style in the media (owing to the fact that Montréal is the epicentre of Canada’s Francophone media).  It is based on a much broader mix of old languages and accents which came from France.
  2. Conversely, in Canada’s Easternmost provinces we find Acadia (the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador).  The original French settlers to Acadia in 1605 (and those who continued to come up until the 1700s) came from narrower, more localized regions of France.  In France, they came from regions a bit further South than the settlers who went to Québec and Ontario.  But the Acadian settlers were still from the Northern Half of France and the still spoke languages of Oïl.   Because the settlers spoke different Oïl languages than those who went to Québec and Ontario, Acadia ended up speaking a different style of French — a unique style which is still spoken as the main type of French in our Atlantic provinces today (called Acadian French).

The YouTube recordings:

Someone went to a good deal of work in creating the following YouTube videos, and making them publicly available for our viewing and listening.  They found and put together a collage of sound recordings of 28 accents throughout France, and 45 of the languages of France.

  • France’s 28 accents from all regions of France: 

In this first video, see if you can hear aspects of accents in Northern and Northeast France which share some traits with Canadian French accents.   There are some shared traits – and it is quite intriguing to listen to.

Pay particular attention to the Charentes (Saintonge)”, “Nord-Picardie (Thiérache)”, “Orléanais (Blésois)”, andPoitou (Deux-Sèvres)”, accents.   Sound familiar???  —  I especially find the Charentes (Saintonge) accent to be quite interesting – but all of them are very interesting (I’m thinking out loud here… When I listen to the above accents, I certainly can hear accents which share definite traits with those of Québec’s North-Coast,  Gaspésie, Northern Ontario and older Canadian Prairie-French accents).  Now mix all the above accents together (plus a few more), and guess what overall accent you’re likely to begin to get!  (Wink, wink!!).  And that, my friends, is precisely what happened 300 – 400 years ago here in Canada.

  • France’s 45 languages:

As a speaker of Canadian French, what I find fascinating about the video below is that I (quite surprisingly) find some of the languages relatively easy to understand.   Three of the languages which stick out as relatively easy to understand are PercheronMainiot, and Poitevin (despite that I had never heard them prior to listening to this video).  Even though I can understand them, I am not sure that people in other regions in France would understand them quite as easily.   This is because they seem to share many more traits with our colloquial French in Canada than with standard International French (or even colloquial European French).

Something I find quite shocking (but equally fascinating) is that I can hear vocabulary and expressions in these languages which we regularly say in Canadian French but which are not said in France French and have died out in France.   The following are some prime examples of words / phrases I heard in the languages I pointed out.  They are things we say everyday in Canadian French (many many times every day).  I, like most people in Canada, took it for granted that these were uniquely Canadian words — but apparently they’re not, and we now know their true source! (from some of the old Languages of Oïl).

  • où-ce que t’as..?” or où ce qu’y est…?”
    • instead of “où est-ce que tu as…?” or “où est-ce qu’il est… ?”,
    • which means “Where did you…?” or “Where is…?” in Canada
  • à c’t’heure
    • instead of “maintenant”
    • which means “right now” in Canada,
  • fait-qu’là
    • instead of “alors”
    • which means “so in Canada,
  • M’a faire, aller, etc….”
    • instead of Je vais faire, aller… etc.”
    • which means I’m going to do, go… etc.” in Canada,
  • ben’qu-là
    • instead of “bon!”
    • which means “well…”, or “so then” in Canada, etc.

And then there were the accents and tones… such as the old French Montréal-Windsor-St.Louis corridor aveolar “Rs”, and Acadian vowel flattenings.

Truly fascinating stuff — like a 400 year old time-machine, but with a mirror with our face in it!

I suppose it indicates that the degrees of separation from the original French dialects which came to Canada in the 1600’s & 1700’s, and the style of colloquial French we speak today across Canada and Québec may not have diverged as much as one would think.

Other languages which I surprisingly do not have major difficulties understanding are aspects of Picard (Ch’ti), Orléanais (which appears to share many traits in common with Acadian French in Canada), and Gallo.  

It was actually quite eerie listening to these languages for the first time.  There was an instant sense of “familiarity” with them, despite having never heard them before.

Go figure!  😉

Where all this fits on a language tree:

As with any language, I suppose you could say any given language has “sibling” languages and “cousin” languages.

A cousin language would be when one older language gives rise to a few parallel new languages.   In a broad sense, Latin gave birth to many different language groupings.  Some examples would be the Italo-Dalmatian grouping (which includes Corsican, Italian, Sicilian, etc), the Eastern Grouping (which includes Romanian, Aromanian, etc.), the Langue d’Oïl grouping (which includes French, Norman, Walloon, etc.).

In general, these “groupings” could be said to be positioned like “cousins” with respect to one another on a family tree.   In language terms, sometimes you can understand your cousins, but sometimes you cannot.   Some of French’s cousins would include Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.  I can understand (especially read) a good deal of these three language cousins.  Conversely, English’s closest cousin is the language of West Frisian which is spoken in the Northern Netherlands.   English speakers cannot understand or read West Frisian (or any other cousin of English) owing to too much separation in terms of time and geography.   So it’s hit and miss when it comes to understanding cousin languages.

Then there are the sibling languages.  Each of the “cousin groupings” gives birth to a number of other languages (“sibling” languages) through closely related circumstances of geography and history.   In the Oïl Language grouping, we find the languages in the above video (for example, Percheron, MainiotPoitevin, Picard (Ch’ti), Orléanais and Gallo).  As a Canadian French speaker, the above-mentioned sibling languages are not difficult for me to understand, despite that I had never heard them before (whereas other “sibling” languages in the Oïl Language grouping are difficult for me to understand).   Conversely, English has two sibling languages… one has gone extinct (Yola), and the other is Scots.  Sometimes Scots can be a bit difficult to understand if you are not used to hearing it (see the video below), but if you were to read it aloud, chances are you would understand 80% of it if your native language is English.

Click below to open the language tree to see where French and English sit with respect to their language “cousins” and “siblings”.    The languages discussed above are in “Blue” on the tree.

Indo-European Tree - blue - jpg

We already heard samples of some of French’s language siblings.  But as an English speaker, if you’re curious about English’s only remaining sibling, Scots, here are some examples:

This is a sample text of Scots from Wikipedia:  Quebec (Québec in the French leid) is a province o Canadae. It is the mucklest province gaun bi aurie o Canadae. Quebec haes a population o 7,651,531 fowk. The offeecial leid o Quebec is French, an aboot 90% o the indwallers o Quebec speaks it (aside French, baith Inglis an Inuktuit are spoken). The caipital ceety o Quebec is Quebec Ceety (Ville de Québec in French), an the mucklest ceety is Montreal (Montréal). Maist o the fowk in Quebec are French Canadians (or Québecois), but Erse-Quebecers, Scots-Quebecers, Inglis-Quebecers, Italian-Quebecers an Jewish-Quebecers bide there an aw.

Just for the fun of it, I’m going to have a go at translating it.  Let’s see how I do (I’ll put my guesses in parenthesis):  Quebec (Québec in the French language) is a province in Canada.  It is the largest (?) province (something something) of Canada.  Quebec has a population of 7,651,531 people (or folk).  The official language of Quebec is French, and about 90% of the inhabitants (dwellers) of Quebec speak it.  Apart from French, (something) English and Inuktitut are spoken.  The capital city of Quebec is Quebec City – Ville de Québec in French.  And the largest city is Montreal.  Most of the population (folk) in Quebec are French Canadians – or Québécois, but (something) Quebeckers, Scottish-Quebeckers, English-Quebeckers, and Jewish-Quebeckers also live (abide) there (but I assume they’re not saying they live there “in awe”… so I don’t know what the last word is).

How did I do?  It looks like I could understand 90%.   If you want to read the full Wikipedia article, you can find it here;  http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec

But… Let’s ramp this up a notch, and see how well your listening skills are.  I’ve seen the following video, and although I would likely not have many problems “reading” what is being said – I cannot say the same regarding my listening skills.  I have only ever had minimal exposure to listening to Scots, so believe me when I say that 80% of what is being simply flies over my head.   Have a listen and see how you do (if you are an Anglophone Canadian, I’m sure you will do NO better than me in understanding what is being said):


If you want to read more on all these topics, you can check out the following Wikipedia articles:




A surreal experience in Témiscaming (#198)

Two days ago, I had a very surreal and quite unique experience with Canada’s cultural duality.

Canada does not have many “cross-border” towns.  We have a few with the United States (where the border divides towns in two), and there are a few border-towns between provinces as well.   Cross-border towns are communities which are divided by a border, and which would be “one town” if the border did not exist.

Some prominent ones which come to mind are:

  • Stewart (B.C.) & Hyder (Alaska): When I was a child and living in Terrace B.C, my parents would take us up the road to Hyder to celebrate 4th of July (it was quite close to Terrace).
  • Lloydminster (Alberta & Saskatchewan): This is actually one city, with the Alberta-Saskatchewan border dividing it down the middle along Main Street.   I’ve driven through Lloydminster at least once every year, for many many years, on my way to visit relatives.   As a city, it is administered in quite a unique fashion:  The two provincial governments have agreed that it falls under Alberta sales tax rules, Saskatchewan education system, Alberta health care system, and Saskatchewan’s other municipal regulations – regardless of what side of the border residents live on.
  • Noyes (Minnesota), Pembina (North Dakota) & Emerson (Manitoba). This was basically a tri-border community.   I used to work in Emerson, Manitoba for a short period.  The US-Canada border was a road on the edge of town.  Everyone had friends on the other side of the border.  We regularly crossed back and forth for meals, beers, local baseball games, and even groceries.  Customs & Immigration officers on both sides of the border knew everyone and everyone knew them (today, when I cross the border at a place like Niagara Falls, and the US inspector asks how many times I’ve been to the USA, I respond in a purposely naive tone “maybe a hundred times or two”, which I know perfectly well will earn me a strange look – lol).

However, two days ago I had a border-town experience unlike any other I have experienced before (I’m still shaking my head in disbelief).

I drove to Témiscaming, Québec for a business related matter.  Usually, people from Toronto think that the closest point to Québec from Toronto would be where the 401 enters Québec on the way to Montréal, or where Gatineau meets Ottawa.

But actually, the closest point in Québec to Toronto is Témiscaming.   This might actually come as a surprise to most people because Témiscaming is a 6.5 hour drive from Montréal (it is considered quite far “North” for people living in Montréal), and it is a four hour drive from the Western edge of Ottawa.

But if you look at a map, it is almost exactly straight North of Toronto.   Because of the new limited-access expressway from Toronto to North Bay, 90 minutes has been shaved off the trip.  It now only takes three hours and a bit to drive to North Bay from Toronto, and Témiscaming is only a 45 minute drive beyond North Bay.

 (Map showing Témiscaming’s location – Click to enlarge)Temmg2

Geographically, Témiscaming is almost cut off from the rest of Québec.  If you want travel to Southern Québec from Témiscaming, you have to travel through Ontario to get there (but there is a road which connects to Northern Québec to Témiscaming).   Ironically, their closest major city is Toronto — and North Bay, Ontario is the closest centre for dentists, optometrists, etc.

What took me aback was the cultural duality of the town.  The town is situated along a very narrow point on the Ottawa River (two short bridges cross the Ottawa River, with each bridge perhaps only a few metres long, with an island in the middle).   The Ontario side of the river has three satellite communities, Eldee, Thorne and Wyse.  These three communities speak French, and the only school on the Ontario side is a Francophone school.   The Ontario side counts perhaps has 500 people.

On the Québec side, there is the old town of Témiscaming, and a bit further up the road is the new town.   30% of Témiscaming is Anglophone.  There is an Anglophone school on the Québec side.   The remainder of the town is Francophone, with a Francophone school.  The Québec side has around 2800 people.

Together, both sides of the border interact and operate as one community.


On the Ontario side, when I went to a café and gas station, both times I was greeted and served in French.  On the Québec side, when I went to the grocery store, a sales clerk in the isle greeted me in English, but the cashier greeted me in French.

When I was standing in line waiting to pay for groceries, the cashier and customer ahead of me obviously knew each other and were friends.  But the cashier spoke to the customer only in French, and the customer spoke to the cashier only in English.  They had quite a conversation about their kids who play together, and their husbands.  One would speak in one language, and the other would answer in the other language.  It was very interesting to witness (many years ago, I once had a colleauge who operated in this manner, he spoke only French when other people spoke to him only in English — but since then, I have never seen this occur before in public).

The whole town seemed to operate on along these lines.

(Photos of the “transformed” coffee shop and Subway restaurant in a VIA Rail car and old railway station)




I went to the hardware store to buy some bindings.  I heard the same linguistic quirks there also.  A customer spoke French, and the clerk spoke in English.  I didn’t know what language to speak (really… how you decide?).

I suppose people who live there knows everyone else, and they would know what language to address others in.  But it seemed like people just spoke in their own language, regardless of the language of the person they were speaking to, and everyone seemed to be perfectly bilingual.

When I went to a restaurant, I heard the staff speak both languages, perfectly bilingual, with no accent in either (I couldn’t tell if they were Anglophone or Francophone).  When it came my turn to be served, I uttered an awkward downtown-Montréal-style “Hi, Bonjour!” (I have never done that before, it just came out like that without me even thinking about it – it felt very strange).   The waitress said “Bon, mon cher, you can speak whatever language you want!  Alors, qu’est ce que je vous sers?”   I laughed out loud!  (but that didn’t answer my question as to what language to speak — I felt like speaking both — it was just such a unique situation!).

I had the chance to ask some people what the heck was going on, and how this even worked.  For the most part, I was told that what I observed was correct — that the town operates much along the above lines.  Everyone is very bilingual, and people feel comfortable speaking their own language for the sake of simplicity, with no expectation that the response will be in the same language.  Everyone understands each other – so it just works.  It’s perfect harmony – and there is no assimilation or loss of one’s identity (Francophone children will grow up Francophone, Anglophone children will grow up Anglophone, and they all live together as one cohesive community.  Everyone is friends, and everyone has each other’s back, regardless of their home language — like a 1960s love-in!).

I don’t ever like to admit it, but “sometimes” I feel uncomfortable speaking English in some areas of Québec. Don’t get me wrong… It’s not because I feel like I would be treated differently, or badly, or anything like that.  Probably it has more to do with the fact that I don’t want to make others feel awkward — in the sense that I don’t want others wondering what I’m talking about if they can’t understand me.   It’s strange, I know.  I know that 99.999999999% of the time it would never be a problem to speak English in a public Francophone environment (just as 99.9999999999% of the time there would never be any issues with a Francophone speaking French in a public environment in Anglophone Canada).  I’m probably a bit too sensitive on this front.   But the fact that I don’t really have an English accent when I speak French makes it so I know I can just blend in with the crowd — and my brain instinctively switches to French in Québec or other Francophone regions of Canada.  But this trip to Témiscaming was the only true time I have ever felt my linguistic compass go completely haywire — I truly did not know what language I should speak.

In this sense, Témiscaming would be a documentarist’s dream!

What I found particularly interesting was that the notion that Ontario-Québec border did not appear to exist in people’s minds in Greater Témiscaming, regardless of what side of the border people lived on.  Elsewhere, people in Québec and Ontario are often very “aware” of the border (I used to live in Gatineau, Québec, so believe me when I say that the border is as much a psychological matter to many Ontarians and Québécois, as it is physical).

One resident of Timiscaming told me that the town’s former Loblaws/Provigo closed several months ago.  For a period of several months, the only place the town’s residents could purchase groceries was 45 minutes down the road in North Bay, Ontario.   People made this commute on a regular basis until the new IGA recently opened in town.   Now that Témiscaming has a new supermarket (quite a large one might I add, I was told it employs 100 people), Anglophone Ontarians from as far away as a 25 minute drive on the Ontario side now come to Témiscaming to do their grocery shopping.  This adds even more to the cultural diversity of the community.

For some, Ontario is good for owning a home, paying cheaper income taxes (for people without children), and for gas (the pump price on the Ontario side is $0.08 cents cheaper).   For others, the Québec side is good for owning a home, paying less income tax for families with children, groceries, and services.

ont side

The main employer is the pulp & paper mill on the Québec side.  But if you look at the parking lot, it’s a good mix of Ontario & Québec license plates (just like the rest of town).  Témiscaming is the main point of employment for the region on both sides of the border.

I was told the only major inconvenience for residents is that Anglophone families on the Ontario side have to send their children by bus 35 minutes down the road to Redbridge, Ontario (they’re not eligible to attend the Anglophone public school on the Québec side, and the Ontario side only has a Francophone school).

In the end, once I got my business out of the way, I managed to get in a couple of hours of snow-shoeing (I mean, hey – doesn’t everyone always carry an extra pair of snow shoes in their trunk?).  The town’s physical setting, with the forests and hills, was breathtaking.  The only thing that would have ruined it would have been if a hungry bear happened to see me as I was fighting my way through 4 or 5 feet of snow (Monday’s post could have been my last one if that happened 😉 ).

Considering how close Témiscaming is to Toronto, and considering how interesting it is from a cultural perspective, I think I’ll definitely make a point of heading up there with friends for camping this summer.   As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best kept secrets within a short drive from Toronto.

(I don’t think I could have out-ran a bear with the snow-shoes on in 4 feet of snow)