1/24/2009

The Inevitable Decline of French in Quebec

Le Devoir, a Quebec media outlet, published this letter from a francophone reader, on January 2008:
For a few years, I have read, I hear and I feel that a decline of the French language is inevitable within the current Canadian institutions: many immigrants are moving to Quebec, but where they are really moving to is Canada.

English suits them better and, with French classes being now cut, all they do is mangle the language of Molière when ... they can't help using it. Many manage to avoid French school over generations (see private schools, English-speaking cégep) and continue to grow up to become Canadians first (Anglos, if you want): they gorge themselves on anglophone media, music and attitudes.

What enables me to make such statements? Simply put, my experience. I was born in Bas-de-Rivière, lived there 16 years, then I went to Quebec to study at the Cégep and the University for seven years. Until then, I had lived all my life in French; even foreign students and teachers had to speak French to become integrated, or else they would end up alone.

Yet at the Laval University Hospital (CHUL), I had my first experience of working in English, in the lab of a researcher who had recently arrived and spoke only English. Since I can speak English, I accepted this situation. However he soon had to speak French for survival, and his three daughters are now little Québécoises like any others: demographic pressure had been at work.

Things changed when I arrived in Montreal: first I worked for a Lachine company, then with the McGill university. Needless to say, virtually everything that happened there was conducted in English, even when no more than one English-speaker was present. Why? Because, at every given moment, everyone on the staff included a number of immigrants for which English was easier...

However, I started to ask myself serious questions when I had to see a doctor at the Jewish Hospital. On several instances, the staff could not utter a word of French, or even give me forms and regulations in French, except sometimes in bad French!

After six years of this, I began inverting word order («bleue porte», for example) or answering a spontaneous “What?” when asked a question. I reacted in a Draconian way to this change and I tried to reject English. Since then, I have practically stopped listening to English-speaking music or movies and I am less keen to learn new English words. Survival was somehow at stake.

Finally, we moved (with the family now) to Gatineau and have been there two years. Here, I sense a demographic crush: unilingual English-speakers are served in English by mechanics and grocers, without an "au revoir", why, the checkout clerk even treats them to a heartfelt “Have a good day!” and a broad smile.

Also, when riding the bus to Ottawa General Hospital where I work, I sometimes hear French-speaking people meet their anglophone friends (always in Gatineau) and greet them in English. As soon as the river is crossed, another country begins for me: 99% English-speaking commercials, unilingual drivers, businesses serving their customers in English only. What can French-Ontarians do about it? Some whinge a little against it but a majority of them folds, and… does so with pleasure!

More often than not, I can make out three French words in between two English sentences, or else someone speaks English and receives an answer in French. One might call it symbiosis, but English-language dominance is felt all the same.

click here to read the rest of the letter in French


12 comments:

Snake Oil Baron said...

Over the years I have heard predictions of both an end of French in Quebec and an English flight from Quebec due to sovereignty debates and Quebec Nationalism. I am not sure which direction the demographics and cultural momentum is moving. I suppose it is time I had a look for some research on the issue again.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

The English flight you're mentioning is real and has been ongoing for decades, due to repressive socialist laws and a poor economy. In light of this phenomenon it is interesting to observe that Quebec French is not growing stronger, but weaker: the francophones have been having too few children, and the many Third-World immigrants have not embraced the French-speaking cause significantly. They speak bad French and vote against Quebec sovereignty at each election. They want to be Canadian and their children to speak perfect English to have better opportunities in life. This doesn't bode too well for the French language in Canada.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Unfrench, I want to thank you for the English translation you posted. Google Translate does a fair job of translating French text from web sites, but it isn't perfect, and mistakes here and there. When a human translates, it becomes much easier to read. Thank you for your efforts!

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Thank you Edward. There is always room for improvement. For instance, a few footnotes about Quebec's laws or school system would help non-Canadian readers better understand what the author of this letter writes about. Until I find time to add such notes I can only encourage readers to do a bit of research by themselves since much of the material that I post to this blog is not originally written for an international audience.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

I wonder if there is any "French" flight from Quebec---Quebecois who leave the province because they want their children to learn English---or at least be bilingual---and don't want to jump through the hoops that the provincial government sets up for English language education?

Unfrench Frenchman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unfrench Frenchman said...

Re computerized translation:

Cheeseburgery hamburgers and the problem of computerised translations
January 26, 2009
by Tony Barber

This morning I found myself on a public platform in a Brussels hotel for my first ever European bloggers’ conference. As a representative of an “establishment” news organisation, I was half-expecting to be roasted alive. But in the end both Mark Mardell of the BBC, my friend and fellow-guest, and I got through it safely enough.

The most perceptive contribution, I thought, came from a Romanian blogger who made the point that the global blogosphere remains to a large extent divided by language. For example, you can blog all you like in Romanian, but most of the world won’t have a clue what you’re saying.

A moderator responded to this by saying, “Try using computer-generated translation.” As I drifted back to my office, I recalled that the last time I’d experimented with computers striving to change Italian into English or Dutch into Spanish, the results had been pretty hopeless. Perhaps things had improved over the last couple of years?

Well, below are three examples of computerised translation - courtesy of Google Language Tools - from French, German and Polish into English. I am republishing the translations exactly as they came out, punctuation mistakes and all, after I hit the button.

1) This is from a news story in Le Monde about US and European policy in the Middle East. “Believing that the war in Gaza has imposed new priorities and the administration of the new American president, Barack Obama, might break with the unconditional support to Israel, French diplomacy is trying to print in Europe, a change of tone against the Hamas.”

As you can see, this translation starts off promisingly. In fact, it scarcely puts a foot wrong until it loses control and talks, weirdly, about printing changes of tone against the Hamas. Still, we sort of know what’s going on here. 7 out of 10 for Monsieur L’Ordinateur.

2) Now here’s a sentence from a story in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung about the US prison centre at Guantánamo and what Europe can do to help close it down. “The fate Released Guantanamo prisoners ensures fierce debates: Union politicians criticized the foreign ministers of Vorpreschen Stein Meier - and refer the responsibility for the inmates to the U.S.”

This is a pretty poor effort, Herr Computer. Particularly disappointing is the omission of the preposition “of” between “fate” and “released” (which also shouldn’t have a capital R), and the baffling three words “Vorpreschen Stein Meier”. But let’s be fair, there’s a modest degree of sense here. 5.5 out of 10.

3) Lastly, here’s a sentence from the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on French leisure habits during the recession. “Economic crisis and changing lifestyles, the French seriously affect the profits of French cafes and restaurants. A sign of the collapse of the French culture of the restaurant is visible on the streets of Paris rash of quick-service bar, offering generally pogardzane a few years ago and cheeseburgery hamburgers.”

No, dear readers, you have not gone potty. That’s what it says. And I am afraid, Pan Komputer, that it’s utter gibberish. You get 2 out of 10 - and an hour’s detention in the language lab.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

"I wonder if there is any "French" flight from Quebec---Quebecois who leave the province because they want their children to learn English---or at least be bilingual---and don't want to jump through the hoops that the provincial government sets up for English language education?"

Of course, a lot of "pure laine" French speakers have left Quebec in the last few decades. There are many more economic opportunities to be found in the US and in the rest of Canada than in Quebec. And the weather often plays a role too. In point of fact, every ethnic group in Quebec is affected by this phenomenon. The Anglo group only more so than the others.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

And the weather often plays a role too. In point of fact, every ethnic group in Quebec is affected by this phenomenon. The Anglo group only more so than the others.

I have heard many Canadians---like Americans---retire to warmer climates like Florida or Arizona.

Speaking of "pure laine", I've heard that one problem Quebec has had is that the Francophone immigrants from Africa which the province recruits have trouble getting jobs, so they move on to the rest of Canada, where their French-speaking skills are more valued. This may be part of the reason why Quebec has stopped pushing for only francophone immigrants...

Unfrench Frenchman said...

"Speaking of "pure laine", I've heard that one problem Quebec has had is that the Francophone immigrants from Africa which the province recruits have trouble getting jobs, so they move on to the rest of Canada, where their French-speaking skills are more valued. This may be part of the reason why Quebec has stopped pushing for only francophone immigrants..."

All of this is true. The Quebecers thought their low fertility rates could be offset by massive immigration from West Africa, but at the end of the day if the pure laine don't have more babies French will die out in North America.

Ronduck said...

EJC said...

I have heard many Canadians---like Americans---retire to warmer climates like Florida or Arizona.

I live in AZ and I get to see a lot of license plates from up north every winter, some from of which are from Canada.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Here's another column you might want to read. It's an English-language blog written by a Quebecois whose first language is French.

English is back in the Québec workplace.