Can Sherry Simon understand cities by studying language?

Earlier this year, I attended a bilingual lunchtime discussion led by Sherry Simon about power struggles in multilingual cities at McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal.

As Keynote speaker, Simon, a Professor in Concordia’s French Department presented a collection of stories she edited within a book called “Speaking Memory: How Translation Shapes City Life.”

Even though this book is a collective, it is a result of my obsession with Montreal and with Montreal-like cities which I’ve studied over the last ten or more years,” she said. “It all started in the early 1990s in my neighbourhood, which is Mile-End, when I became aware that the day-to-day life in my neighbourhood, the way languages were handled, the way people thought, the way identities were construed were diametrically opposed to what I was hearing on the radio and what I was reading in the newspapers. That was a shock.”

My focus was a profile for the February issue of the Montrealer, but Simon’s work is so fascinating, I decided to present our conversation in this podcast as well.

Sherry Simon’s Diverse Career

As a Jewish Anglophone who grew up in Snowdon, went to school in Westmount and spent much of her life integrating into Montreal’s Francophone culture, Simon knows how it feels to be an outsider. Unlike many of us, however, she has used her minority status as a strength in understanding and explaining changing identities.  She is one of the few Anglophones I’ve met who speaks about the French and English dichotomy in Quebec from a position in which she absolutely believes that it is vitally important to keep the French language dominant in the city. Despite not agreeing with her, I couldn’t help but recognize how well-considered her opinion is.

Simon is currently a professor in the French Department at Concordia University and author of “Genders in Translation,” “Cities in Translation,” and “Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City” in addition to “Speaking Memory.”


What some people see as a disadvantage I turned into an advantage,” she said. “I remember that very existential sense that I had as a kid when I took the bus across town and felt unwelcome. Bilingualism in Montreal affects everything that we are. Culture is constantly being transferred back and forth.”

Simon was born on April 16, 1948. The Royal Society of Canada and of the Académie des lettres du Québec count her as a member. In 2009 she was a Killam Research Fellow and in 2010 she received the Prix André-Laurendeau from l’Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS).

During our conversation, we discuss the bonjour/hi controversy,  Quebec’s influence on France when it comes to gender,  the improvement in Francophone pride in their own identity, and the removal of gender from Canada’s national anthem.

This is a change that is long overdue,” says Simon. “Language regularly changes. This is totally normal and fundamental. It’s absolutely essential that people recognize themselves in the language they use.”

A fascinating part of our conversation for me was our discussion about Montreal’s fundamental shit from English to French between 1940 and 1980.

People don’t realize that what was happening on the French side of town was exciting to a whole group of Anglos at the time,” said Simon. “My favourite character of that time was Malcolm Reid, a journalist in the 70’s who wrote about Francophone Montreal. He wrote this wonderful book about the Shouting Sign Painters. It’s a fabulous book about how the poets and songwriters were transferring the identity of the city and how exciting that was for English Montrealers to watch.”

Sherry Simon’s next book will be a tourist guidebook to polyglot places.

Once my Montrealer profile is online, I’ll link to it, but in the meantime, I highly recommend that readers who understand French watch Simon’s bilingual speech called “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures.”




Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Tracey Arial

About the Author

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

Follow Tracey Arial: