A simple “Bonjour” can change everything

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Posted: 
January 22, 2018
Written by: Pascale Bourque

"Good morning, Pascale!" "Good morning, John!" It‘s something we take for granted: when two people who don’t speak the same language meet, isn’t it only natural, even necessary, for them to choose one common language in which to communicate? How else would they understand each other? I never really thought about that question until recently.

I’ve been working in a predominantly English-speaking environment for a long time now. Without even realizing it, I’d gotten into the habit of speaking to everyone in English. Then, one morning, for some reason that I still can’t explain, I did something that would transform my work environment: I took a chance and greeted my co-workers with a friendly “Bonjour” on my way into work.

That first "Bonjour" had a totally unexpected shock effect. I noticed that many people were surprised when I repeated “Bonjour” to everyone I met in the long corridor that led to my office. We hear the same old greeting so often in the mornings that no one really listens. But that “Bonjour” sounded really strange: it was different, I think. Many people I greeted stopped short … or hesitated. Then, they went on their way without saying anything or murmured something I couldn’t make out. I saw some faces freeze. Not for long. Maybe a fraction of a second. Some looked slightly annoyed; others had a little smile. No one appeared indifferent.

Shortly before, I had found out by accident that a co-worker of Vietnamese descent had learned French long before he learned English. We had spent hours in meetings, sometimes one on one, speaking in English without ever realizing that we were both Francophone. This incident, along with many others, was probably what motivated me to begin greeting my co-workers in French. In this way, I found out that there were other previously unsuspected Francophones disguised behind English names or anglicized French names.

As the days and weeks went by, some of my Anglophone co-workers began greeting me with “Bonjour.” Oh, there are still only a few of them, but the number keeps growing, and they get braver and braver. Some are now daring enough to speak to me using a few French expressions they are familiar with. “C’est chaud!” someone said to me as I gingerly took my lunch out of the microwave. I was so surprised that I nearly dropped the scalding dish. We both laughed. It was such a delight! We now speak to each other more and more in French. I suspect that he’s started preparing what to say in advance. I’m not complaining!

By greeting my Anglophone and allophone co-workers in French, I extended an invitation to them. I invited them to risk saying one word, just one, in French, without feeling shy or fearing criticism. Once the first step is taken, the ice is broken and a mutual confidence takes over, paving the way for a richer and richer dialogue. Barriers fall. Friendships are formed. Then, the co-existence of two languages becomes not only possible, but even enjoyable and desirable.

What about you? Will you say “Bonjour” tomorrow?

Translated by: Fatima Rizzo, Language Portal of Canada

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Pascale Bourque

Pascale Bourque is in love with the French language, its richness, subtlety and complexity. As a professional and an expert in human performance, she never gets tired of discovering new, more useful, compelling, sweet or alluring words! Even her simplest messages are punctuated with plays on words that are a source of entertainment to her family and friends, Anglophones and Francophones alike. She delights above all in repartee, as it keeps language truly alive.

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