Quebec Premier’s English Under Fire

by Translation Guy on February 15, 2013

Québec Premier Pauline Marois faced ridicule from francophone Quebeckers on her return from Scotland recently. At issue was not the premier’s French, but her execrable English, reports Don McPherson of the Montréal Gazette with ill-concealed glee.

It was a critique without mercy: “Fluently bilingual Québécois commentators, picking out examples of Marois’s mistakes in vocabulary in the 15-minute interview, judged that the quality of her English was unacceptable for a representative of her people.”

Francophone Benoît Aubin of Le Journal de Montréal rated Marois’s English performance “totally incomprehensible.”  He suggests she should just stick to a script.

The premier has a serious false cognate problem. In her notorious BBC interview, Marois called the 1995 sovereignty referendum a “deception” when she meant to say “disappointment” (déception in French).

I must admit I find it deeply gratifying that French-speaking students of English have the same problems that I had in my futile attempts to learn their language. Yet, as sisters in the second-language club, surely we can sympathize with that peculiar shame that haunts every second-language speaker. Is this not how we learn? I used to pay my daughter a dollar every time she fell down during ice skating lessons to encourage her. That was before she quit.

But the citizens of Québec will not indulge their leaders in the same way. Eighty percent of La Presse readers declared that it is “indispensable that the premier of Québec have a good mastery of English.”

Others claim she came across like a “hick.” Some wonder why the leader of the Parti Québécois even bothers to speak English at all.

Criticism of the premier’s English is an old story in Québec. Check out this bilingual (?!) parody below:

Marois announced this week that she would respond to the questions of journalists in French alone to avoid confusion. “I get advice and will try to follow it,” Marois said.

But she eventually gave in to the pleading of English-speaking reporters with another English gaffe.  She said of her party that “we wanted to be offensive on the sovereignty all the time,” when she should have said “we wanted to be on the offensive.”

Marie Barrette, the premier’s press secretary, suggested that Marois may avoid speaking English when she is too tired to choose her words properly.  According to Barrette, “the criticism was virulent” and unfair to someone making their best effort in a second language.

Barrette says all Marois’s work is never enough for some. “It’s not Anglophones criticizing her. It’s Francophones,” she says.

Criticism may be more than a matter of word choice. Marois’s push for Quebec sovereignty comes as support for separation of the province from Canada has declined to 37% from 43% a year earlier.


  1. The part about “Some wonder why the leader of the Parti Québécois even bothers to speak English at all”, is slightly mind boggling. Given she is a government employee of an officially bilingual country giving an interview to an English language news agency, English is not a necessity but wouldn’t the fact she hadn’t bothered to learn or try reflect worse on her and Quebec?

  2. George says:

    The French I have found have always been strangely underpar at mastering other languages, but that is just in my experience.

  3. Possibly a lot of the criticism is based on the fear that should she attempt negotiations or even just simply conversation in English, that she might end up offending someone quite badly with her poor communication skills.

  4. Helen says:

    I would point out that support for Quebec sovereignty and its decline, coincides with the decline of French in Quebec and the diversification of the population.

  5. Well, at she’s trying, given her political beliefs, she could not just try at all.

  6. Deborah says:

    This would rarely happen in Europe, few university educated people operating in international circles, let alone politicians are monolingual.

  7. I’m not sure what the shock is for Quebecers, this woman is a Quebec nationalist, she probably never thought English was necessary to master.

  8. Bonnie says:

    You can’t blame the glee filled attackers of Marois’s English, she has spent her entire Premiership attacking other’s failures at French. Although it is surprising this doesn’t come from Anglophones.

  9. Tracy says:

    Isn’t Canada officially bilingual, shouldn’t she had had to learn English to graduate high school? I had to learn Spanish in the US and we don’t even have an offical language, let alone two.

  10. Luc Allgut says:

    Why not just use an interpreter? I know a couple.

  11. Really, French people are now so obnoxious they have begun not just looking down their noses at people’s French linguistic flaws, but English as well.

  12. Strange, in France, children have to take two languages (other than French) in highschool to graduate, you would think Canada would ensure children graduate highschool at least speaking one extra language.

  13. Erin Finch says:

    Being Canadian, I never understood how one could be a civil servant in a government enforced bilingual country for three decades and not master the other language, be it English or French.

  14. Cherryl says:

    Who really cares, all politicians speak are lies anyways.

  15. Hummer says:

    Of course it’s the Francophones criticizing and not the Anglophones, it’s just too perfect, hilarious.

  16. Duane says:

    I watched this interview actually, she was really struggling, to the point where you had to wonder how someone in public life in North America for decades was really this bad.

  17. Rita says:

    Oh, I’m sure it isn’t just Francophones gleefully taking shots at her,the Anglophones are just smart enough not to do it in the press.

  18. C’mon lady, Tony Blair spoke fluent French, Merkel speaks great English, Russian and French; Sarkozy took intensive English lessons, and speaks German too. Political leaders have a responsbility to be able to communicate clearly, and represent their constituents well.

  19. Sue says:

    Not particularly surprising, I remember reading somewhere that she failed English classes as a child.

  20. Matt Enright says:

    If the Queen of bloody England can be fluent in French, this lady can learn English.

    • Ken says:

      practice makes perfect

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