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