I recently visited a friend in New York State. I traveled the long road, travelling by train this time. I have seen beautiful landmarks and breathtaking views. Unfortunately, I have not been able to capture all the beauty of the land, but I certainly keep a vivid recollection in my mind of all the natural beauty I was blessed enough to behold.
Leaving Quebec, I expected to see no French at all. Was I wrong!
As far as I know, the United States of America do not have any official languages, only two predominant ones, namely English and Spanish. You can certainly imagine how stunned I was to see bilingual packaging, English and French, in grocery stores, dollar stores, and even drugstores. I did not even have to look for French and look hard at the items; they were right there in front of me in big enough numbers that they seemed to fit the bulk of the packaged products rather than the random exceptions. I just could not believe my eyes!
After a little bit of research, I learnt that the number of reported French-speakers in the USA is higher than I ever thought it would be considering the largest French-speaking community in North America is the province of Quebec.
The American Census of 2007 reports:
After English and Spanish (34.5 million speakers), Chinese (2.5 million speakers) was the language most commonly spoken at home. Five other languages have at least 1 million speakers: Tagalog (1.5 million speakers), French (1.4 million speakers), Vietnamese (1.2 million speakers), German (1.1 million speakers) and Korean (1.1 million speakers).
I doubt regulations are forcing manufacturers to add French to their packaging; French is not a big enough market in New York State (or the whole country for that matter) to justify the decision. The only reason I can think of is that these products (and produces in some cases) are also intended for Canadian French-speaking market. According to the Census Bureau, the majority of the French-speakers can be found on the East Coast (New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. Atlanta, and the states of Miami and Louisiana). San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the West Coast, French-speakers can be found in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Bilingual packaging is not the only familiar experience NYS had to offer. While on vacation, we also visited a French bistro. I will give kudos to the owner for the effort in capturing the French “essence” of Paris. Crystal chandeliers, Eiffel Tower wallpaper, Edith Piaf’s recordings, and a wide array of French wine were enough to make you imagine being in Paris. However, on a second look, you knew you were not quite there. The food was excellent, albeit prepared by a Mexican chef (in all likelihood since his last name was clearly Spanish). I am surprised I did not hear “La vie en rose”; who would play Edith’s recordings and skip this iconic song? You could get a three-course meal if you wished so and the meals on the menu were labelled in French with the English description underneath. Professional bias: I found typos right away.
I was not going to miss the opportunity to order in French, unmerciful toward the young waiter who obviously could not speak a word of French. I ordered a “paillard de poulet mariné”, and to my surprise, it is what I got. The company was great, the chicken was delicious, and the Sauvignon wine was exquisite. I had a great time.
So much for a change of scenery! I could not even escape my mother tongue for six consecutive days and somehow, I was pleased. Having your host country make you feel at home, albeit indirectly, is a nice form of welcome and a proof of their consideration toward you, their visitor.