Pratte: Opinion: Questioning whether French is in decline should not be heresy

A very good example of how to analyze language data in a comprehensive and nuanced manner, using the wide range of language measures in the census and the Rapport sur l’évolution de la situation linguistique au Québec (mother tongue, language most spoken at home, language most spoken at work, language of instruction):

In the wake of a question from MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos that included quotation marks, Minister of Official Languages Mélanie Joly said she was “stunned” and maintained that “we cannot deny at this time that there is a decline in the French language in Montreal and across the country. The statistics show it.”

The decline of French would thus have become an absolute truth, statistical dogma that cannot be contested without risking excommunication — a punishment that was, as a matter of fact, administered to Lambropoulos.

However, the reality is much more complex. In its latest Rapport sur l’évolution de la situation linguistique au Québec, published last year (125 pages of statistics!), the Office québécois de la langue française paints a very nuanced picture of the situation.

Is there a decline? Some data suggest that there is, but several other figures show either stability or progress for francophones, particularly since the francization of immigrant children introduced by Bill 101.

In terms of mother tongue, for example, it is true that the proportion of French speakers slipped from 80.9 per cent to 77 per cent between 1996 and 2016. However, the proportion of anglophones also decreased, from 8.3 per cent to 7.5 per cent. No, the shift from French as a mother tongue has been toward “other” languages, that is, the mother tongues of immigrants. Their children, on the other hand, will go to French school, and French will slowly establish itself from one generation to the next.

Moreover, unlike previous generations, the majority (75 per cent) of recent immigrants who speak a language other than their mother tongue at home adopt French. According to this indicator, within the immigrant population, French is not declining at all, it is on the rise.

Data on language of work and language of instruction provide an equally nuanced picture. For example, on the island of Montreal, the number of children entitled to English-language education under Bill 101 dropped by one-third, from 75,256 to 50,416 students between 1986 and 2015.

Where the problem lies is in the language used in downtown retailers. The survey published by Le Journal de Montréal a few days ago confirms the data collected by the Office, according to which the proportion of stores in downtown Montreal where customers are greeted in French decreased sharply from 2010 to 2017, from 86.2 per cent to 72 per cent for stores in shopping centres, and from 89.5 per cent to 73.6 per cent for stores fronting on the street. These drops occurred in favour of English and of Bonjour-Hi. That said, once past the initial greeting, service in French was available in 96 per cent of cases, a proportion that has not changed since 2010.

We cannot therefore speak of a general decline in French. It all depends on what exactly we’re talking about. The government — and Quebec society in general — must certainly act to ensure that customers are received in stores first and foremost in French. It must be clearly indicated that the main language in Quebec is French.

However, the problems with how customers are greeted in stores do not justify an all-out linguistic offensive, even though such a policy would be popular. We will have to think twice, for example, before imposing Bill 101 on businesses under federal jurisdiction, when there is nothing to indicate that the problem of the “decline” of French is rooted in this sector, which accounts for less than four per cent of the province’s workers. It is surprising, moreover, that the government of Canada has not categorically rejected this blatant intrusion into its jurisdiction.

In short, one cannot speak of a decline of French in Quebec without putting a lot of nuances into it. We can say this while affirming that the situation of French in Quebec will always remain fragile and that, consequently, vigilance is required. However, in order to ensure that policies in this area continue to be well informed, it is absolutely necessary to authorize and encourage debate and questioning, even accompanied by quotation marks.

In short, one cannot speak of a decline of French in Quebec without putting a lot of nuances into it. We can say this while affirming that the situation of French in Quebec will always remain fragile and that, consequently, vigilance is required. However, in order to ensure that policies in this area continue to be well informed, it is absolutely necessary to authorize and encourage debate and questioning, even accompanied by quotation marks.

André Pratte, former journalist and former senator, is a principal at Navigator.

Source: https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-questioning-whether-french-is-in-decline-should-not-be-heresy

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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