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.