Photo: Veronica Louis

L’office québecois de la langue française’s (Quebec Office of the French Language) just published a report that shows the French language is losing ground in Montreal. French language defenders understandably went up in arms about this.

But appearances can be deceptive. What the study shows is that the proportion of Montrealers who speak French at home is declining. In other words, the report is counting native French speakers, not francophones.

Let us explain. You don’t have to be a French Canadian, and you don’t have to speak French at home to be a francophone. All you have to do is speak French. Period. We’ve always wondered why so many people who defend the French language in Quebec confuse “French Canadian” with “francophone.” Only a quarter of the 220 million francophones in the world today actually learned French as a mother tongue (or speak French at home). The rest learned French at school.

That’s what makes them francophones. So really, what different does it make if they speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin or something else at home?


The Big Picture

Asking people what language they speak at home makes sense if you also ask them what language they use at work and in their daily communications – something the OQLF study oddly doesn’t do.

That said, it’s fair for the OQLF to be concerned about what language people speak at home. French is the language of the majority in Quebec, but of a minority in Canada, and of a very small minority on the whole continent where francophobia is a common feeling. Even in Quebec, the situation of French is a struggle.

The health of French in Quebec – in all Acadian and French-Canadian communities throughout Canada for that matter – depends on a healthy balance on all three levels: French at home, at work, and in daily life.

It would have been a hundred times more logical for the OQLF to ask all three questions, instead of focusing on just French at home. That would provide a good assessment of the state of the French in Quebec today. Because, let’s face it, though packaged in politically correct language, the “French-spoken-at-home” statistics essentially boil down to ethnicity and race.


A Public Language

The approach of this study is all the more odd since “French at home” is not the mandate of Quebec’s Law 101.

The aim of the law was never to get Quebec residents to speak French at home. The goal of the law is “to make French the language of Government and the Law, and the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”

Law 101’s other aim was to get immigrants and their children to speak French – not to assimilate them, but to make them functional members of a society where people communicate in French in public and at work.

When it comes down to turning adult immigrants into French speakers, there are lots of practical challenges. But the law stipulates that the children of immigrants have French as the language of instruction from kindergarten to secondary school. Again, the objective of Law 101 is not to get immigrants to speak French at home.

Presently, almost 100% of the children of immigrants in Quebec are schooled entirely in French, and are perfectly capable, if not eager, to speak French whenever and wherever. And that’s not counting the growing rate of English-speaking parents who are enrolling their children in French schools.


Safe Bet

That 1977 decision to “Frenchify” all immigrants was a safe bet on the fact that the descendents of the 10, 000 colonists of New France, themselves, would not be able to ensure the survival of the French language. Quebec has placed the destiny of French in the hands of a new French-speakers. That means the French language will probably change too.

But we should be celebrating: the primary goal of Law 101’s has been achieved! French is no longer the language of an ethnicity. It belongs to everyone. Quebec culture will never be the same.  But Quebec will be stronger.


Natural resource

Language – or, to be precise, languages – are our most valuable resource.  What is the best language to conduct business in? English is convenient, just like French. Bur in fact, the best language to do business in is the client’s language. Even in the U.S. the ability to communicate in the mother tongue of the Spanish V.P. or the Algerian director is proving to be extremely advantageous.

We can’t possibly learn all languages — there are more than 6000. As Quebeckers we need to maintain all our mother tongues, and go further. We need to encourage Quebec businesses, ministers, associations and universities to make an inventory of the languages spoken by their personnel, members and students. This would put a gigantic pool of linguistic human resources at our disposal.

Quebec is developing more and more relationships with foreign markets. We need the right resources to maintain these multi-lingual relationships. Sure, school plays a role. But families can also do the work of passing on languages at suppertime.

While the children of Quebec go to school in French, at home supper discussions might carry on in Spanish, in Arab, in Berber, in Portuguese, in English, in German, in Cantonese, in Italian, in Greek, in Wolof, in Bantu, in Swahili, in whatever…

Quebec should be celebrating instead of lamenting. The province needs to be cured from its French-language-tunnel-vision. In the end, we’ll only come out stronger, linguistically speaking.