“What we’ll uncover about French in North America will resonate throughout the world’s French-speaking communities.”
– France Martineau
The language and culture of North America’s francophones, be they Cajun, Québécois, Acadian or Franco-Ontarian, are rich in diversity. The language itself has been shaped by the multiple origins of the first settlers and by their contact with speakers of other languages, such as anglophones and members of the First Nations. In the process, French in North America has followed its own distinct course over the centuries, from a language of immigrants and a language of connection for peoples of different linguistic origins to a language of unification and identity building.
France Martineau is a linguist and a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Département de français. She is heading a Major Collaborative Research Initiative titled Le français à la mesure d’un continent: un patrimoine en partage (French in North America—a shared heritage). Martineau explains that the seven-year project, which received a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2011, is designed to examine “the evolution of French in building identity in francophone communities.” A prestigious international team of 13 co-investigators and 88 partners and organizations from Canada, the United States and Europe is exploring how French has evolved over time and across borders and how the linguistic vitality of Frenchspeaking communities is faring. The study is exceptional in that it paints a truly multi-faceted picture of the French fact in North America, one that stretches beyond historical, geographical and disciplinary boundaries. It will analyze factors such as socio-political and demographic contexts and the role of the family and school in linguistic borrowings from other languages.
The team selected roughly 15 regions to study across North America and will travel the continent to record how French is spoken and experienced in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Maritimes, Louisiana, the Detroit area and New England. “The study will yield important results,” says France Martineau. “What we’ll uncover about French in North America will resonate throughout the world’s French-speaking communities.”
Not surprisingly, projects of this magnitude come with their share of challenges. “You learn how to work from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Martineau. The Montréal team, for instance, has linguists, historians, archivists, anthropologists, education researchers and even a cinematographer. “The trick is to use the same research tools and the same protocols so we can then compare the results from one field or team to another’s.” Martineau adds that international research means frequent meetings to stay on course. What’s more, research traditions vary from one country and discipline to another, but signing international agreements eases exchanges among researchers and among institutions.
Still, international research is invigorating. “With the Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program, we can assemble a top-calibre international team,” says Martineau. “Thanks to the network this allows us to build, we can conduct truly innovative activities. In the end, opportunities open up not only for researchers, but also for students, who gain access to a pool of internationally recognized scholars and to unique research tools.”
France Martineau focuses on the initiative’s principles of inclusion, adding that “the project examines the issues at stake for French-speaking communities in the wake of globalization. It also highlights today’s French-speaking communities in all of their wealth and diversity, be they in majority, minority or multicultural settings.”
Over the next five years, the research team will generate an array of scholarly publications, organize international seminars and mount exhibitions. The international community—researchers and the general public alike—will have free online access to a unique treasury of the French language as it has been used and spoken in North America over the past 400 years. The project will thus reassert the University of Ottawa’s position as a leader in research on Frenchspeaking communities around the world.
Building strong ties with France
The University of Ottawa has been one of some 90 partners of the Centre Jacques Cartier since 2008. Based in Lyon, France, the Centre brings together universities, institutes and public and private companies from France and Canada. Their objective is to provide the tools and resources needed for international research and to foster stronger scientific cooperation between France (especially the city of Lyon and the Rhône-Alpes region) and Canada’s francophone community. At the end of November 2013, a series of 24 seminars were held during the 26th edition of the Entretiens Jacques Cartier, a prestigious international gathering organized by the Centre. Researchers from the University of Ottawa and from dozens of other institutions across all disciplines discussed the challenges facing society today, such as our aging population and the sustainable development of large cities. On the strength of its involvement, the University of Ottawa plays an increasingly prominent role among francophone communities worldwide and in international academic circles.
by Jean-Philippe Veilleux