Where words define the 'perfect citizen'


The Globe and Mail
Saturday, April 3, 2004 - Page A3

MONTREAL -- Forget the hockey playoffs. An elite group of competitors is gathering in Quebec City today to fight for supremacy in one of the most gruelling and fearsome contests in the land. It's the Olympics of orthography, a cross between a spelling bee and an elite sport. It's also the most quintessential of French-language challenges: La Dictée des Amériques.

Today's 11th annual competition unfolds in the ceremonial splendour of the Quebec National Assembly's Red Room, which will be filled with nerve-wracked competitors from around the world. The word-fest is broadcast on Télé-Québec, the government-funded network, so people can test themselves at home. (The dictée text is then reprinted in major newspapers across the province.)

It's part cultural event, part cerebral sport. Either way, it would be hard to imagine in English Canada.

"In Quebec, dictée is like the sport national ," says James Archibald, director of translation studies at McGill University in Montreal.

"It's a little window that explains the almost fetish attitude people in Quebec have toward their language," he says. "French is one of the crown jewels of Quebec, so there's a sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the language. In a way, the person who comes out on top of the pile after dictée is almost like your perfect citizen."

At a time when young Quebeckers' test scores in French are faltering, when English permeates the Internet and creeps increasingly into the vocabulary of young people in the province, the dictée stands as a sort of symbolic bulwark against the English language.

The closest Anglo-equivalent to the dictée is the spelling bee, but the two are about as similar as grape juice and Bordeaux.

The notion of thedictéesounds simple: The listener takes dictation and transcribes a text word for word. But the typical dictée is so complex, so riddled with traps, obscure words and grammatical tricks, that native French speakers can easily get a dozen mistakes.

In French, words that sound alike may be spelled differently depending on a myriad of factors, including whether they're masculine or feminine. Each noun has a gender: bread is masculine but baguette is feminine, butter is masculine but margarine is feminine. Meanwhile, other words in the sentence must agree with the nouns, creating one giant linguistic riddle.

Each year at La Dictée des Amériques, the dictators -- Quebec literary luminaries who compose and read out their own compositions -- try to trip up contestants.

The 2001 dictée, read by legendary singer Gilles Vigneault, referred to a story about a black bear, or ours noir. Seven lines later, it became clear the bear was female -- sending everyone scrambling back to write ourse noire instead.

"It's true, it's a curious habit we have," concedes Pascale Lefrançois, a former Quebec dictée champion who now sits on the Dictée des Amériques jury.

She trained for her competition by reading all 60,000 words in the dictionary over her summer holidays. She would have had a perfect score except she neglected to put an accent and hyphen in Sénatus-Consulte, a decree of the Senate in ancient Rome. These slip-ups cost her a half-point each.

"The dictée brings back a lot of memories for people -- both good and bad," she says. "But there's an emotional attachment to it."

For some, dictée is a game, like Scrabble, while for others, it's a form of nostalgia. The dictée was a staple in Quebec schools before the Quiet Revolution, when it had the power to strike terror into many a schoolchild's heart. It was purged as a relic during modernizing reforms in the 1970s.

Some still regard the dictée as a meaningless exercise that values rote memorization. Yet it is returning in favour, and competition for La Dictée des Amériques is fierce.

About 42,000 Quebec primary and secondary students began trying out last fall for a chance in today's Dictée des Amériques final, with few surviving the various elimination rounds.

With three potential champions and a solid delegation of finalists in the past four years, École Honoré-Mercier has emerged as a dictée powerhouse. Located in the blue-collar Montreal neighbourhood of Ville-Émard, with a high number of single-parent households, the school is sending more dictée competitors to Quebec City today than any other in the province.

Many of the students hold down part-time jobs at McDonald's and local stores, yet they set aside time to train for dictée, French teacher Fouzia Sahrane says.

One glorious spring day this week, while all the other students were out enjoying the sun, three teenagers vying in today's final were hunched over their desks, utter concentration on their brows, while Ms. Sahrane took them through their paces. A brick-thick Larousse dictionary sat before each of them. They'd given up their lunch hours for weeks to train.

"To me it's a challenge to master French, because it's such a complex language," said Élisabeth Étienne, a 17-year-old who inherited her love of words from her Haitian-born father. "My friends tease me sometimes for doing this. But it doesn't bother me -- we're rewarded for what we do."

Amazingly, despite the trauma that dictée caused in their youth, willing adults gamely take part in the contests -- and they come from far and wide to do so. Participants are expected today from 14 countries, including Senegal, Russia, Peru, and the United States. France used to play host to an international dictée but withdrew in the early 1990s. Quebec, which had had the highest per capita participation in that contest, took over as home of the global dictée competition.

"Maybe it's our collective unconscious need to test ourselves and defend the language," said Sylvio Morin, who co-ordinates La Dictée des Amériques at Télé-Québec. "If the French language weren't so hard, the dictéewouldn't exist."

The reward for winners? Mostly reference books, but also some minor celebrity status. Ms. Lefrançois won her dictée contest back in 1990, but she was in a big-box Réno-Dépôt building-supply store last year when two apron-wearing salesmen approached. "Are you the one who won the dictée?" they asked.

Thirteen years after her linguistic Olympic medal, she was still tops.


Last Updated: April 7, 2004