Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Reality check, please

Yesterday, the Ottawa Citizen published an editorial about why Stéphane Dion is, in their words, "unfit to lead this country"--a conclusion one Randall Denley reached after participating in an interview with the entire editorial board. Some of his objections were about Dion's ideas, but most of them seemed to be about his linguistic abilities. The editorial was behind the subscriber wall, but the interview wasn't, so I figured: what the heck, I'll give it a whirl.

About half an hour into it, I switched it off. Not because I was horrified by Dion's supposedly horrendous inarticulateness, as I was clearly supposed to be, but because this was nothing we haven't heard before. He was repeating the same talking points I've been hearing him make for months, which may have been a boring way to spend half an hour, but it was still perfectly ordinary. Dion sounded like...GASP!...a politician! with a Québec accent! having a conversation! with a bunch of journalists!!! You know, something that happens in Canada every day? So I kind of shook my head at the weird biases of conservative journalists, and went about my day.

Apparently, though, the topic has now spread from the particularly shrill Tory blogs to the far more reasonable ones, and even to the occasional Liberal. They're saying that Dion has a "shaky grasp of English," that the interview is "painful," and that "his improvised English is much, much worse than his scripted efforts." And now I'm confused, and I'm looking for some honest, non-partisan impressions. Do people really perceive something particularly devastating about Dion's informal, spoken English? 'Cause I'm just not hearing it.


Oxford County Liberals said...

It's just the smear campaign they're trying to perpetuate. They started it with the silly whispers about Dion's loyalty to this country over his dual (French) citizenship, and now we get this.

It fits perfectly fine with their attack ads they whipped up. I mean, they're hailing Michael Coren of the Sun for slamming Dion's English. THat should tell you at what level of discourse most of these folks think. On the other hand, I'm not particularly too afraid of that level of attack strategy, because that really won't work well in the election campaign.

Olaf said...


Dion just seemed confused or rudderless the whole time. Of course he was giving political answers, that wasn't what bothered me, it was how poorly he delivered then, and how unconvincing he was in doing so.

And you think that "most of (Denley's objections) seemed to be about (Dion's) linguistic abilities"? He once refers to "Dion's shaky grasp of English", and that's it. The whole editorial was about his policies and/or his inability to communicate them (and not because of his English, communication can be a problem for even the most fluent).

And Scott (who is an idea candidate for a non-partisan impression),

I don't think it's a smear campaign, regarding this interview at least. I usually don't partake in such things, to discredit a leader for the sake of it. But, listen to the interview, seriously. I thought it was just the worst. I'm sure the man has good ideas (I've praised them before), but if you can't articulate them, it's difficult to be successful.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Um, if "linguistic abilities" are limited to one's ability to speak a language, then conversation analysis isn't part of linguistics, and I should never have received my current job. *grin* Trust me, an "ability to communicate one's ideas" certainly does fall under the category of "linguistic abilities." (Really.)

I don't know, I don't think he seemed at all confused, and I don't think his delivery was either particularly good or particularly bad. It just seemed like an ordinary interview to me. I don't see what the fuss is about.

Now I'm wondering how people would have reacted if I'd put my interview with him online as an mp3 file rather than writing a piece about it.

bigcitylib said...

Olaf and co. are trying to stir the pot. I played fifteen minutes of the interview and found it 1) a bit boring, because as you say it was nothing new, 2)a bit hard to follow at the start because of tape hiss.

Otherwise, this is all about a conservative newspaper bashing the Lib leader because...wait for it...he's FRENCH! God knows what they'd have said if he was black.

Olaf said...


Not that you care, but reducing the Ottawa Citizen's criticisms down to the fact that he's French is beyond ridiculous. As I said, their whole editorial was about his inability to articulate clear policies, which I think the tape reveals quite nicely. Not that he doesn't have them, but that he can't articulate them in English (maybe French too, I don't know), which is a problem.

Again, I don't really care, I thought he did a poor job in the interview and I said so. If you think he did a good job, that's fine too. But don't just say "BTs stirring the pot", "Ottawa Citizen is a creation of the Lord of Blackness", "they're only criticizing him cause he's French".

None of these mean anything other than that you're unwilling to face any legitimate criticisms unless they come from within your own Liberal universe, which they likely won't.

That's one thing that drives me nuts: people in certain parties dismiss all criticisms from other sources. Like if the Star criticizes Harper, BTs will say "yea, of course the Star would say that", as if that's a rebuttal in itself. No rebuttal of their arguments necessary, just saying it's from the Star is sufficient. But if the Star is so biased and wrong, then it shouldn't take much to take it one step further and say why. Of course they're biased, but that doesn't mean they don't make a good argument.

Same if the Post (or, apparently, the Citizen) criticizes Dion, the Libs say "well, obviously the Citizen is going to say that". It's like the only criticism they won't dismiss out of hand is that which comes from those who are traditionally "on their side", which is rarely where valid if any criticism comes.

Oh well, such is life. Sorry to clog your post, IP.

Mike said...


I'm going to agree with IP on this. As I have stated over at your place, to me, a reluctant but regular reader of the Citizen and Randal Denley, this is not a surprise at all.

Look, IP and I have no dog in this fight. But I have listened to the recording and it sounds like the same old some old to me. Denley is entitled to his opinion (like you or me) and to even print it in a big city daily newspaper (unlike you or me), but that doesn't mean that his opinion, from a life-long and obvious conservative, means any thing about whether Dion is in fact qualified to lead the country. And its not the big, scoop, embarrassment that may in the BT ranks are making it out to be.

I listen and I hear neither the saviour of the Liberal Party nor the "unfit to lead this country" troglodyte that each side is spouting about. I hear a french politician yammering on as always, with the same belabored talking points.

No news there and not even something the Citizen itself thought was big - the column was not in the first section of Saturdays paper, nor was it prominent in the Editorial section - it was below the fold on the 3rd or 5th page (I can't remember exactly but it was on a facing page) of the City section, where Denley's stuff usually is.

I wonder what the opinion of the others involved in that interview are?

Olaf said...


And its not the big, scoop, embarrassment that may in the BT ranks are making it out to be.

I don't think the editorial is a big scoop, but I do think the recording was embarrassing, and just so happen to agree with Denley for the most part. Just my opinion.

And I would also like to hear what the other editorial interviewers have to say, although since it's just a right wing rag, what does it matter, right?

Mike said...

"And I would also like to hear what the other editorial interviewers have to say, although since it's just a right wing rag, what does it matter, right?"

True enough, but it would still be interesting to hear. Leonard Stern occasionally makes coherent statements.

I don't think it was embarrassing per se, unless you think it sounding like a poorly conducted job interview was embarrassing...

Q. Pheevr said...

Dion seems much more articulate than, say, Jean Chrétien, though perhaps also somewhat less charismatic. Sometimes he talks quite fast, which, combined with his accent and the poor quality of the recording, made it hard for me to catch some of what he was saying.

Greg said...

It is called "swiftboating" IP. Someday the CPC will break free of the dead hand of Republicanism, but not soon, I fear.

Matt said...

I haven't bothered to listed to the Citizen interview, because I've heard Dion speak in person before. His English is certainly no worse than Chretien's was in '93 (I'd say Dion's is better), and ultimately I think that this smear campaign (if that's what it is) will amount to little once people start hearing news clips with Dion speaking in them. Certainly most Liberal election ads will feature him in some form or another.

What's really interesting to me is that with both Chretien and Dion, we're dealing with francophone federal party leaders who don't measure up to Trudeau's frighteningly high standard of personal bilingualism. For better or for worse, this was the standard that was established for a bilingual Prime Minister, and it's a standard that very few Canadians, let alone politicians, are able to attain. It's also not a standard which is reciprocally applied to anglophone party leaders, who can get away with disastrous accents (for starters) in French, yet are praised for making an effort.

Anonymous said...

Some people think the inability of a potential PM to speak French adequately is a disaster, if not an automatic disqualification from the appointment. Presumably they feel reciprocally about a potential PM's ability to express himself in the other official language.

Anonymous said...

Silly, silly, silly - and so hysterical it must mean that the Tory hacks are really worried!

1. I shook Dion's hand in Victoria recently and I (as well as several other hand-shakers) noted a good, firm, warm, businesslike shake. Certainly not effete, wimpy academic or limp-wristed.

2. His English is not fabulous, but hey - have you ever asked a francophone about Stephen Harper's French? It's hardly impeccable! Dion gets his points across and is improving daily. He's funny, knows the issues, and cuts to the chase. He doesn't just lecture in funereal tones about how wrong everyone else is and how right HE is. Unlike a certain Prime Minister.

3. I would not take one Liberal-loathing Ottawa Citizen hack's ramblings any more seriously than I would the Harper campaign promises for thousands of child care spaces, hands off income trusts (not!), reduced hospital wait lists or any of the many other Tory election-promise lies.

Oh yes, and that "promise" to allow free votes in the House except on fiscal issues....amlqvir

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

q. pheever,

Thanks for the balanced, non-partisan reality check!

JG said...

I've seen Dion speak in person as well, an entire speech in fact, after which he answered questions from the audience. He has a strong accent, yes, but probably no worse than Harper's French accent (and still better than Chretien, though I agree Dion doesn't quite have his charisma - neither does Harper).

impudent strumpet said...

Part of my job as a French to English translator is finding places where people have used gallicisms in English, and correcting them to more English structures.

I didn't listen to this particular interview you referred to, but I have been paying attention to Dion's English ever since I heard that he has bad English. Frankly, it doesn't strike me as bad. One thing I notice when I listen to him talk is how much worse it could be. He almost always uses English structures when a French structure would occur to him more readily. For example, some commentators have noticed how often he uses the word "sustainable". As you probably know, the French word for "sustainable" is "durable", so if his English really were poor, he would be slipping into the English word durable, which means something completely different from sustainable. I've noticed this for a number of word choices and structural choices. He does have an accent, yes, and he sometimes pauses to find the word he's looking for, but it sounds to me like he's either thinking in English or he has internalized English syntax.

Of course, most people aren't specifically trained to notice the mistakes he's not making, and I have no idea how his English sounds to a unilingual Anglophone or someone who hasn't internalized all the common errors Francophones make when speaking English. But to me, it doesn't fall into the category of poor English.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

impudent strumpet,

I agree with you. And yet I still have to wonder whether your (and my) longstanding daily experience talking to non-native speakers of English makes us unusual in this context. In the end, opinions about Dion's English aren't going to come down to what a linguist and a French-English translator think, but what Joe Canadian thinks. That's why I asked for this reality check--genuine curiosity about whether or not my perspective was skewed.

Unfortunately, almost no one who responded here could claim to be doing so from a non-partisan perspective, as the mudslinging on both sides testifies. Which is kind of too bad, but probably to be expected.

Scotian said...


While I find Dion's English quite understandable I can understand how some could have more difficulty with it. I agree btw with impudent strumpet regarding Dion's word choice clearly showing he gets English syntax at the minimum if not actually is thinking in English for the most part. His accent though is strong, and my wife, who is not a political partisan (nor am I really despite what some think since I am opposed to one party/leader and not supportive of any other one party/leader except to the degree I see them being able to defeat my opponent) and far less political than I am finds him difficult to understand when he speaks in English, she actually prefers during QP when he is in French because of the translator.

Now, he does find him understandable in terms of his overall message, especially when she is able to read what he has said as opposed to trying to listen to him. Now, it needs noting that my wife has a particularly hard time with accented English from any accent; it is not just the French one that throws her off. Indeed, she finds it easier to listen to someone using very fractured English but with little accent to someone that speaks precision grade English but has a strong accent. So you need to take that into account when you consider her example. I hope this helps.

Andrew said...

I haven't listened to the interview, however a friend at work did (not a blogger, and voted Green last election). He was visibly wincing at times, and when we chatted afterwords he was decidedly unimpressed. Being able to speak English off-the-cuff is important.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm one of the few who actually likes listening to our Francaphone colleagues when they take "the other official language" out for a dance.

A person can get so used to our Anglo side of the Solitudes that I'm grateful a Francaphone makes an effort my unpractised Anglo derriere doesn't. If a person has the basics of English down and then does a custom paint job of francaphonie art all over it? Eh, voila. Franglish. A true Canadian blend in living evolution.

The sudden snake dance of syllable stress and change of pronunciation can be poetic, leaving the listener (me anyway) going wow, I didn't know you could say it that way. /I/ can't say it that way and he made it sound easy.

Does it get in the way of the message? If it's as incoherent as some claim, I suppose it could be, but I never had trouble comprehending Chretien's English. If people want to be pedantic about sentence structure and exact Oxford diction, they should look to their own vocabularies FIRST. If they're struggling with a hidden urge to yell "if you want to live here you furriner, speaky English!!" but they just /can't/ out with it because the speaker is a powerful personage, then I suggest they stop being concern trolls wringing their hands about M. Dion's 'flaw' of not making them speak French every time they're in his presence.

If the medium is the message (or massage) than what is the message when the medium is a calm, Francaphone, federalist, environmentalist, academic, political Canadian who is manually reinventing his thought processes to reach the population of this country too poorly educated to understand his first language?

Don't get me wrong. I think we should all be better educated throughout our childhoods in both French and English and I'd be up for a class in at least "Smatterings" of other languages. The more multilingual we all are, the better. It expands the mind down those exotic avenues. Maybe someday...with that free national secondary tuition...

Jen said...

Hmm... what about a politician's difficulty in expressing themselves in their own language? ;)