Two languages or two dialects?



My kids were watching TV the other, and they were watching in French. That is, they were watching a TV station from France, but the show was made in Quebec. So it had subtitles, so the French kids could understand the “non-standard French”. Really? French kids can’t understand Canadian French (Quebecois)? Strange, because my kids can understand it, even though their education has been entirely in “proper” French. In general, people speak of Quebecois as being a “dialect” of French, rather than its own language. So why isn’t it intelligible to the French? And how does one decide if a variety is a language, or a dialect? I remember when I moved from Canada to France, I was shocked at how many people apparently could absolutely not understand a word I said – even stranger when you consider that despite the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, I could generally understand them quite well. This is not an uncommon phenomemon, and certainly not limited to the problems between France French and Quebec French.

If you are interested in the differences between France-French and Canadian-French, here are a couple of clips you can watch. The first one is short and informative (but a little bit boring). Differences between French in Canada and France
The second one is much longer, but arguably more interesting, from a linguistic and cultural perspective. Differences between French in Quebec and France

If you are not really interested in French then you can skip those and keep reading…
So, why is it that some “languages” that are very closely related, and mutually intelligible are considered “languages” and others considered “dialects”? The best answer, in my opinion, is this quote (attributed to an audience member at a lecture by Max Weinreich sometime in 1943-44):

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Really, in many cases, this is accurate. Flemish is a language, although it is mutually intelligible and very closely related to Dutch. “Chinese” is spoken of as one language with many dialects, even though many of those dialects are not mutually intelligible at all! “Language” is a term used for nation-building, “dialect” is a term used to minimize and marginalize.

This is a topic of interest to me, in part because of my background in sociolinguistics, and in part due to the dilemma of many families I work with – “Should I pass on my dialect, or the “official” language?”. Faced with this question, and often with outside pressure, most parents choose for the “language” over the “dialect”. Why? Because “language” has higher status. Because “dialect” is often seen as being “less-than” – less useful than, less proper than, less desirable than. Speakers of dialects often grow up feeling like what they speak is a second-class cousin to the official language. Naturally then, the feel like it is “better” to pass on the official language to their children, and in this way, the dialect starts to die. It’s a sad situation, that happens all over the world, and is leading to unprecedented language loss.

One of the most interesting aspects of the language/dialect debate is that of mutual intelligibility. It’s often cited here in the Netherlands that the Dutch can understand German quite well, but the Germans can’t understand Dutch. It’s similar to my French conundrum – why could I, as a speaker of Canadian French, understand people in Toulouse, but they couldn’t understand me? In my experience, the answer goes back to the discussion about language status – people who speak the “proper” language have more difficulty understanding the lowly “dialect” or lesser variety, because they *think* they can’t understand it.

So if you are wondering about passing on a dialect to your child, rather than a language, or wondering if two dialects makes your child (or you!) bilingual, there is no one-size fits all answer. You need to look at what your two options really are, in absolute terms, separated from the divisive “language vs. dialect” paradigm. You need to look at which would be most useful for your child now, as they grow up and live within their communities. You need to consider all of the cultural baggage that goes along with the choice, and what the impact with be on your child if they don’t have access to a part of who they are. And critically, you need to think about how you will feel if you choose to parent in a language that is not a language you grew up in, as this can also be difficult.

I know that I want my kids to speak “French” – not one kind, but in all its beauty and diversity. I want them to be able to use the word “toque” appropriately, as well as “pain au chocolat” and “chocolatine”. So we talk about “varieties” of French, rather than dialects, and we’ve often had to talk about why Mummy says things differently than the kids at school. And that it’s not a bad thing to have more words, or different words, or a different accent – it’s just the way language is.

9 thoughts on “Two languages or two dialects?

  1. Valerie Melzer says:

    Great post! I’m in the same boat, I have to “translate” French shows in Quebecois. What’s a gilet maman? Un chandail.
    What’s chausettes maman? Des bas.
    They say they don’t understand it but I think they don’t want too because they assume they have the higher French… They have slang too but won’t admit it (I have talked about this with a friend from France)

    • eacrisfield says:

      Absolutely – and a lot of the words we use in Quebec are just older French words, and so should be comprehensible. And as far as slang, the French use far more anglicisms than Quebecers… (J’ai un meeting avec le management…).

      • Valerie Melzer says:

        YES! They do use more English words! Thank you for agreeing!
        France: Je vais allé faire du shopping ce weekend. (2 English words)
        Quebec: Je vais allé magaziner en fin de semaine. (0 English words!)

      • eacrisfield says:

        I refuse to give up “magaziner”. I’ve adapted to many “French” words (like I use “weekend” now, because if you say “fin de semaine” to a French person they think you mean Thursday-Friday…). But “magaziner” is a way better word that “faire du shopping”. I can’t say that without putting on a posh Paris accent.

  2. says:

    Isn’t it just a question of getting used to an accent as well? When I first moved to Quebec I had loads of problems understanding the French – despite having a degree in French and having studied in France. I was quite discouraged, blamed my own lack of knowledge and thought I must have lost loads of my French from my years in Iceland. I certainly didn’t have a notion of Quebecois being inferior to European French, I just wasn’t used to the accent. I left Quebec in 2003 and was really pleased to discover this summer (when eavesdropping on some Quebecois on holiday in Florida) that I have not lost my ability to understand and converse in the Quebecois accent.
    Of course confusing standard speakers can serve a purpose as well, particularly when your native language is English and is supposedly understood by millions. I remember going to France on a school trip when I was 17 and being told by some haughty Dutch that they pitied us English speakers because everyone could understand us. We immediately resorted to our rural dialect, they weren’t quite so smug then. I still do it if I want to annoy my husband who has to be the most bilingual (as in learnt not native) person that I have ever met.
    I also point out to my 11 year old who is now being educated in American English that I still expect her to use British English with me. I simply told her that she is intelligent enough to code-switch and it really isn’t beyond her abilities to say film with me rather than movie and to revert back to the British accent she has picked up from me and my family etc etc.

    • eacrisfield says:

      I think that accent definitely plays a part in comprehensibility, but to a greater extent for speakers of the “better” variety. I think that sometimes people who are sure that “their” language is the “correct” one are less likely to make a true effort to understand other accents/varieties. For example, here in NL, UK English is generally deemed better than US English, and I’ve met many people who claim that they can’t understand US English. However, when you look at overall exposure, they probably watch more US-English TV and movies than UK, but UK English is what is taught in schools… so they are claiming to not understand the English that they have heard the most of (and obviously have understood!).
      But I’d love to hear your girls with their Texas accents… 🙂

  3. My Little Spanish Notebook says:

    Interesting post! Don’t you think that it is a question of “exposure”? It’s similar to Brits understanding Americans (because we are bombarded with North American culture and language in films, on the TV, etc.) whereas Americans sometimes find it hard to understand Brits, unless they’ve come in to contact with British culture/people a lot. (I really don’t mean to generalize here. There will be plenty of execptions of course!)

  4. Leanna Alldonemonkey says:

    So interesting! I often wonder about how to do this – I sometimes feel like I’m already putting a lot on my child by teaching two languages, and don’t want to confuse him by introducing different dialects and accents as well! I don’t worry about this with English, the language in which he feels most comfortable, but his Spanish isn’t quite strong enough for me to feel confident expanding into different dialects yet.


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