Open letter to the Université de Montréal from a former law student

Subject: Open letter to the Université de Montréal from a former law student
From: Sara Lande
Date: 13 Mar 2015

Dear Vincent Blais-Fortin, Valérie Gobei and everyone else up in arms about the “anglo threat,”

I don’t often speak out on political issues, especially when they are so controversial, but this particular issue has made my blood boil.

I just graduated from the Faculté de droit at l’Université de Montréal and I am an Anglophone (obviously).

I’d like to start off by saying that I never wrote any of my exams or papers in English while I was at U de M.

I never addressed any of my professors in English and I spoke to my peers, during class, in French.

The back story
I moved to Montreal when I was around five years old, not speaking a word of French. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I knew two words; “bonjour” (the obvious one), and “écureuil” (the not-so-obvious one).

When I was introduced to my second grade glass at Lower Canada College (where I went to elementary and high school) and asked what words I did know in French, the entire class erupted in laughter.

Not because I was an Anglophone, but because of the randomness of knowing what “écureuil” was while having no other knowledge of the language.

Prior to moving to Quebec, my mother engaged a French tutor to assist my transition to Montreal from Houston, Texas; quite possibly the two most different cities you could ask for.

But there I was, a little girl with a southern twang listening to a very beautiful woman (from France) speak to me in French. I was mesmerized by the way the words rolled off of her tongue (the perfect “rrr”s), and there was something about the way she said “écureuil” that stuck with me.

With tons of private lessons and a tough transition, I picked up the basics of the French language through elementary school, and built upon that base through high school (and no, I wasn’t in the “bobo” French class in high school). I took the mandatory French courses in Cegep without issue. I moved downtown and got an undergraduate degree at McGill University, where I barely practised my French. But every summer I took a French course at my local YMCA to make sure that I improved my linguistic skills.

I went to U de M because I love this city and I love this province, and I want to practice as a lawyer here.
Then, I started law school at Université de Montréal. I was pretty nervous because I wasn’t completely comfortable with this second language, but I had done pretty well on the language test I had to take in order to attend U de M, so I was feeling fairly confident.

After my first week in “Section C” (best section ever, by the way), I was thrilled. I was making great friends, both Anglo and Francophone, and I was meeting people I would have never met had I been confined to my Anglo ghetto of Westmount/downtown/McGill. My language skills were improving and I was happy. My French-speaking buddies didn’t mind if I had to inject a few English words into my speech, and they didn’t mind my (atrocious) accent either.

Exam writing at UdeM
We were learning in French, so I wrote my exams and papers in French. I was told that writing them in English was sometimes a possibility, but I never entertained the thought.

Do you know how hard it would be to learn something in one language, and answer exam questions in another? Especially since the legal jargon we were exposed to is very particular to its subject.

I remember the first time I tried to explain a legal concept in English. I kept referring to “biens” as “goods,” instead of property. I had so much trouble explaining legal concepts that I had been taught in French, in English, that I realized how incredibly difficult it would be to write an exam or paper in my mother tongue.

Even if this meant having to write all of my papers at least a week before their due date to have them edited for grammatical errors, or even if it meant lugging my trusty French-English dictionary to all of my exams, it would have been much, much more difficult to write my papers and exams in English.

The fact of the matter is that Anglo students who aren’t fully bilingual at U de M are at a disadvantage, and that’s perfectly fine.

After all, it is a Francophone university (an awesome one, at that). If you attended a university where classes are taught in French, you should be functional in that language. This is all common sense.

But what about the students who struggle with a second language? Why would they write their exams and papers in English?

I can’t speak for the 1.5 per cent of students at U de M who write their exams in English (I feel ridiculous now even citing that extraordinarily small percentage), but I can only imagine that they do so because they are unaccustomed to writing or taking tests in French so much, that they are willing to make their lives harder in order to go to a Francophone university.

Why can’t we all be a little more respectful of one another?
Like I said, I can only speak for myself. I did not go to U de M because I didn’t get into McGill Law, or because I didn’t know what to do with my life and was lucky enough to have the grades to get admitted.

I went to U de M because I love this city and I love this province, and I want to practice as a lawyer here.

I went to U de M because I felt that they had the best law program in Montreal for those who wanted to study Quebec’s Civil Code and eventually pass the Barreau.

I went to U de M because I wanted to improve my French-speaking skills and to start building what I hope will be a very successful carreer in Montreal.

And that means speaking French and English. That means accepting both Anglo and Franco cultures, and while we’re on the topic, all the other groups that make Montreal a cultural mecca (and yes, I’m talking about all of my hijab-sporting, kippa-wearing fellow Québécois sisters and brothers).

This is my city and my province, too.

My grandmother was born and raised in Montreal, as was my father. My family ties to Montreal go back four generations, and this is my home.

I might not roll my “r”s perfectly and I have not mastered the Québecois dialect, but when someone addresses me in French, I do my best to reply in French.

We live in the most amazing city and province. Why can’t we all (and I’m addressing both French and English speakers) be a little more respectful of one another?

That means accepting both Anglo and Franco cultures and all the other groups that make Montreal a cultural mecca.
Making a big deal out of the 1.5 per cent of students at U de M who want to write some of their papers or exams in English is counter productive.

Trust me, the kids who make no effort to learn the language at U de M (and I’m actually fairly certain there are none), will quickly get weeded out.

Suggesting draconian measures of doing “background checks” on the miniscule number of students who request some sort of linguistic accommodation is quite frankly ridiculous, especially given the other issues students have to face at U de M, and on a larger scale, in our own city and province.

I’m pretty sure a piece of highway fell on a car a week or so ago in our city. Case in point.

I’m not trying to trivialize the importance of preserving Quebec’s linguistic and cultural heritage in the least and I don’t want to oversimplify that issue. But with regards to the linguistic policies at Université de Montréal, let’s use our “gros bon sens” and keep things in perspective.


Sara Lande