The linguistic winners and losers of the French language Conservative leadership debate

With only two Francophones in the running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, establishing verbal credibility during the French Language debate in Quebec City Tuesday for the rest of the field was always going to be about staying well clear of last place.

The experts agree: this was not a celebration of the French language

Leadership candidate Chris Alexander proved to be the anglophone with the firmest grasp of French scoring straight As from CBC's language panel. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

With only two francophones in the running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, establishing verbal credibility during the French Language debate in Quebec City Tuesday night for the rest of the field was always going to be a scramble to avoid last place.

When the two-hour debate was over, French speakers Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney walked away with top marks, but for the remaining 11 anglophones left to tough it out in their second language, proving they could connect with French speakers was not always easy.

To get an idea of how well each candidate performed CBC News asked three French language experts to grade the performance of each and offer up insights to how the night went as a whole.

The CBC's experts were:

  • Dr. Judith Woodsworth, professor of Translation Studies in the Department of French Studies at Concordia University
  • Zita De Koninck, professor, Department of languages, linguistics and translation, Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences at Laval University.
  • Mawy Bouchard, associate professor, Département de français, Faculté des arts, Université d'Ottawa​

Overall the panel noted there was an unhealthy reliance on reading prepared answers rather than speaking freely, with widespread pronunciation and grammar issues making many of the candidates difficult to understand.

Among the English speakers, the panel picked Chris Alexander as the clear winner with straight A's across the board. Despite a slow start, Alexander was lauded for being able to express complex subjects in French using solid pronunciation, without leaning on his notes.

Leadership candidate Steven Blaney, a French speaker, was noted for using the inappropriate level of French for the moment. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Interestingly, Blaney, who is a French speaker, was marked lower than Alexander by two of the the language panel members who, knowing the Bellechasse — Les Etchemins — Lévis MP was a francophone, marked him down for not using the right level of French at the right time

Vancouver businessman Rick Petersen was judged next best. He was noted for making some mistakes along the way but did not have to rely on notes to get his point across.

But how did the others do?

Letter grades given to each speaker by CBC's language panel:

Judith WoodsworthZita De KoninckMawy Bouchard
Chris AlexanderAAA
Maxime BernierAA+A
Steven BlaneyA-A+B+
Michael ChongCBB+
Kellie LeitchDDD
Pierre LemieuxBBB+
Erin O'TooleCB-B+
Deepak ObhraiFEF
Rick PetersonB+A-A-
Lisa RaittCC-B
Andrew ScheerCBB+
Andrew SaxtonCB-B
Brad TrostFCD

If former Conservative MP Alexander was the clear winner among the anglophones then it can be said with confidence that Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai sat uncomfortably at the other end of the spectrum. 

Obhrai was singled out for not only reading his answers but for using a pen to point to each word as he did. Professor Woodsworth also noted that whenever he repeated his website address Obhrai did not say "point com" but instead said "pois," which means "peas." 

Obhrai relied almost completely on written answers he brought into the debate with him. (CBC)

Brad Trost, the MP for Saskatoon-University, also came up short in the panel's estimation. Trost's pronunciation was seen as being very hard to follow, especially when he strayed from his notes.

One of the front-runners in the contest was Kelly Leitch, the MP for Simcoe-Grey, but her standing in the polls did little to help her through the challenge of fighting a debate in her second language. The panel said her answers were plagued by poor grammar, pronunciation and an overreliance on her notes.

The middle tier

Most of the rest of the contenders sat in the C- to B+ range with varying degrees of competency. 

Former Conservative MP Andrew Saxton was described as intelligible but with a habit of making pronunciation errors that confused the meaning of what he was trying to say. Professor Woodsworth noted that instead of using "homme d'affaire" when referring to himself, which means businessman, he said "un homme de fer," which translates as "iron man."

Leadership candidate Kellie Leitch struggled with pronunciation at one point saying "bouger," which translates as "move" instead of "budget." (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The final word

The language panellists also offered up some general comments about the debate as a whole:

Woodsworth: "Most of them seemed like they were reading stuff they didn't understand," she said, adding."Chris Alexander stood out as perhaps the only anglophone who could do the bilingual thing."

Bouchard: "I would say that I was generally surprised by the good level of French of many candidates," she said. But "the whole debate was weakened by the participation of non-contenders. The strength of some statements was lost in the crowd."

De Koninck: "Chris Alexander is the only non-native speaker who has expressed very articulate ideas and arguments showing that the language is not a barrier. When he spoke of foreign policy he showed how strong he is."

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