Chiac: A pride or a threat to French?

Acadian rap group Radio Radio | Photo: Mamoru Kobayakawa

By MJ Deschamps

At a time when there is growing concern about the transmission of regional languages to new generations across North America and around the world, young people in southeastern New Brunswick are embracing a hybrid dialect called  “Chiac”—and they find it “right le fun.

The contact language is spoken mostly among Francophones who live in the area of Moncton, Shediac, Dieppe and Memramcook and is characterized by French syntax that includes English vocabulary and expressions. “J’ai wiré ma satellite dish avec mes own mains or “j’ai crossé la street” are just a couple of examples of how the two languages intersect.

In recent years, Chiac has become more visible in the media. The animated series and comic book Acadieman [in Chiac] features the “world’s first Acadian superhero,” who once had “une mystical experience en helpant une femme avec ses groceries.” And popular Acadian musical groups and singers like Radio Radio and Lisa LeBlanc [in French] are singing and rapping mainly in Chiac.

“[Chiac] is being legitimized because it’s being seen and used more now,” says Gabriel Malenfant, one third of Radio Radio. The 32-year-old Moncton native says that when he was growing up, there was a lot of pressure to use either French or English—but not Chiac—at school, in church and even in song. “But now, with multimedia, there are a lot more comfort zones where you can talk how you want to talk . . . I think just communicating how you feel is more legitimized now, because the platforms are there.”

However, while the language may seem like the perfect embodiment of the province’s bilingualism, there are long-standing concerns that the fused dialect may have a negative impact on French in the province.

Back in 1969, Quebec filmmaker Michel Brault made a documentary called Éloge du Chiac, which explores the significance Chiac holds for Francophones trying to preserve their language when English is everywhere.

“It certainly gave [Chiac] a kind of credibility. Before, it was mostly something that people discussed behind closed doors,” says Marie Cadieux, a Moncton-based filmmaker who made a follow-up documentary in 2009, Éloge du Chiac – Part 2, which explores how Chiac has evolved over 40 years.

Chiac now has even more English and has become more widespread through music, literature and media. The increased use of English, however, is fueling a lot of Francophone concerns: “There are different levels of Chiac, but there comes a point where it’s no longer Chiac—it’s English,” says Cadieux.

Canadian author France Daigle was born and raised in Moncton and writes mainly in French, but has pioneered the literary use of Chiac. She says that while the language is undisputedly colourful, it is admittedly not always “high quality,” agreeing that it can sometimes legitimately be called a broken language. “Sometimes you wonder whether it has become too penetrated with English, as the French words are few and far between,” she muses.

Then there is the fear that the young people who grow up speaking the dialect will struggle in both English and French once they move outside of New Brunswick, attend university or enter the workforce. However, says Daigle, as Chiac continues to become more prominent, educators are using the dialect as a tool, rather than vilifying it: “I think schools are much better now as far as working with students goes. They’re not telling them never to use an English word, but are [teaching them instead] what the correct French word is.”

Annette Boudreau, a linguistics professor at the Université de Moncton has witnessed little evidence of Chiac-speaking students being weak in Canada’s two official languages. “People are conscious and aware of [criticisms about Chiac],” she says, adding that the concerns are often exaggerated.

Filmmaker Cadieux agrees: “I grew up with kids who spoke Chiac all the time, and when they went off to university or got a job, they began correcting their [language]. I think they’re actually proud of being able to switch from one language to the other—it’s quite the skill.”

The dialect is also increasingly being used to express identity, says Radio Radio’s Malenfant, and its growing visibility in music and art helps. “If you’re not comfortable talking and expressing yourself, that kind of creates a void,” he says. “That’s where culture and art comes in, and it feels good for us in the band to see our words on paper, written in our language.”

Contrary to popular belief, however, Chiac is not just spoken among the younger generation as a form of rebellion. “That’s how people speak here; that’s how my grandmother speaks,” says Malenfant. “That’s why the idea of Radio Radio and the joie de vivre around the band is implicitly saying that no matter how you talk, be comfortable talking.”

And while there has always been a fear that Chiac is facilitating assimilation into English, Professor Boudreau says the real potential damage lies with the level of French being spoken in the region. “The best we can hope for is that Chiac remains one thing and French remains another,” agrees author Daigle. “You can speak Chiac, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t know your French because of it.”

Funny video – Chiac is the solution by La Revue acadienne 2011 (in French)

Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012

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