montreal languages quebec culture french

Love for other languages in Quebec isn’t hate for French

“For every loudmouth commentator, there are thousands of Montrealers who quietly coexist in respect and mutual affection for what they already know enriches their lives.”

Montreal is a smorgasbord of languages and cultures where, as in the rest of Quebec, French is dominant — and, despite the dated, inflammatory rhetoric of some politicians and pundits, that’s how so many of us like it.

This past Monday, while out on an early morning grocery run, I stopped at Westmount’s charming Café Bazin for a flat white and an almond croissant. Both writing deadlines and rain were looming, so all I had was a quick minute to enjoy the summer breeze on an outdoor terrasse before starting my workday. At the table next to me, I could hear two businessmen effortlessly switching between impeccable French and English while I was speaking to my mom in Greek. Suddenly a woman walked by on her phone, “Mira, mira, te lo dije…” I could hear her engaged in a heated conversation in Spanish, as her voice faded away.

I smiled. Because it’s so routine, so normal, so wonderful that these multiple languages, these arbitrary sounds we make to communicate with each other, are part of my daily Montreal soundtrack. This mélange, this linguistic and cultural smorgasbord, this jambalaya of flavours is one of the things I love most about my city and what makes me feel most at home. The main course is still French, but the appetizers are a little bit of everything. And that makes life a bit more delicious for me.

I immediately tweeted about the moment. In English, as I usually do, being an English writer. No sooner had I posted than someone popped up on my feed to tell me that what I really meant to say was: I’m pretending to like the French-speaking character of Montreal, but I want to live here only in English.

Tiresome accusations

Aside from the obnoxiousness of policing someone’s personal linguistic choices on social media, the random commentator was also wrong. Nowhere did I say that I prefer living only in English. If I did, I would have moved elsewhere (starting with the ROC and its sham of bilingualism) years ago.

But that’s what this man read. Thanks to decades of linguistic insecurity and an almost-daily barrage of hyperbolic declarations by politicians and pundits alike announcing the constant siege and impending demise of French, merely expressing affinity for the presence of other languages in this city immediately equates, for some Quebecers, expressing a desire for French to disappear. It’s an accusation that is both tiresome and unfounded for anglophones and allophones who make their home here because nothing could be further from the truth.

I will forever be a staunch supporter of Bill 101 and measures to ensure the French language survives and thrives in Quebec. I enjoy living in French and ensuring it’s our common tool of communication. I don’t go anywhere in this province — even downtown Montreal — expecting to be served in anything other than French. I hate that the rest of Canada is only bilingual in official status and that francophones outside of this province must constantly fight for their right to speak and teach their language. I recognize that English is a powerful assimilating force and vigilance is required. I hate that I have to constantly explain this; like a mantra, a supplication, a way to appease the aggrieved, an apology for existing.

But one thing I won’t do is ever be fooled into equating love for English or Greek or Spanish or Mandarin with hate for French. Or thinking that criticizing someone’s language on Twitter is promoting and protecting French in any meaningful way. Aside from many studies pointing to the fact that people who speak more than one language are more proficient in all of them, I can’t fathom a world where additional knowledge is a liability.  

Reports of [French’s] death have been greatly exaggerated…

A week can’t go by in this province without someone predicting the demise of the French language and its domination by “les maudits anglais.” Hundreds of years after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and some of you are still confusing bilingual anglophones and trilingual allophones who happily live and work in Quebec with the ones who were brandishing muskets against the French. They aren’t the enemy. New immigrants, with their kids going straight to Bill 101-enforced French classes, aren’t the enemy either.

We are fellow Quebecers, part of the fabric of this place, with major contributions of our own. There is no malicious ploy to “humiliate” francophones or to quash French culture. Lord Durham is long gone, and the Eaton’s saleslady followed in his footsteps soon after. There are no Rhodesians living in Westmount, because, the last time I checked the demographics there, francophones were the overwhelming majority.

Education, not vilification

The enemy is a Quebec government that prefers to spend more time vilifying English than funding better education in French. After all, it’s cheaper and requires no major plan. A lackadaisical approach to francophone schooling can’t be remedied by more aggressive efforts to eliminate or impede a language that, whether we like it or not, remains the international language of commerce.

And immigrants aren’t the problem. Bill 101 kids with names that are clearly not “de souche” are dominating all La Dictée P.G.L contests with their impeccable French. Why isn’t anyone talking about that? Because politicians can’t use that to their advantage.

You know what they can use? Voters in a panic, worried about linguistic and cultural annihilation, a people believing they are under constant siege, a collective that thinks anglophones and mean “multiculturistes” are holding secret meetings on how to undermine the status of French in “Qwabec.” (By the way, I have never — in my entire existence — ever heard a single non-French Quebecer say Qwabec. Francophones and anglophones, and their outdated clichés about each other, exhaust me…)

I’ve grown really weary of the daily spectacle of pearl clutching. Not because I don’t love and want to protect French. But because I know you don’t protect a language by vilifying another. It just doesn’t work. It breeds resentment and it creates a real sense of inferiority that doesn’t serve language acquisition well.

French isn’t threatened by a store clerk uttering “Bonjour-Hi!” in downtown Montreal, or by a trilingual allophone tweeting in English. It’s threatened when it’s not being taught properly or used adequately or when a population isn’t enticed to love it. “What you love eventually survives,” says a Senegalese proverb. You can’t guilt someone into speaking a language.

The half truths in the OQLF report

“You better be speaking English to find work in Quebec, a study reveals” was splashed on the front page of Le Devoir last week, after the publication of a 2018 Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) report about French as the language of the workplace in Quebec.

Almost immediately, the usual culprits jumped into action to do what they do best: terrify people who won’t bother reading anything past a headline, let alone a 74-page report written by bureaucrats.

“Quebec is conquered by English,” said one pundit, re-writing his column for the 400th time. “Our definition of the Quebec identity has been mutilated.” 

“Conquered… mutilated” These words are no accident. They are deliberately chosen to instill fear and resentment towards those of us who have the audacity of being born to non-francophones.

If you look at the OQLF report closely, what it reveals is that 40 per cent of businesses in a majority French province and 63 per cent in Montreal hoped for or requested fluency in English. First off, there’s a big difference between hoping for and requiring, so I’d really like to see a breakdown of that. Secondly, close to 80 per cent of Quebec has French as their native tongue, so who exactly is doing the hiring and the demanding for English? Why are we reacting as if the mean English factory owners are still operating this province’s economic engine? Thirdly, if I were a business owner, wouldn’t it make sense that I would, at the very least, hope for my employees to speak as many languages as possible for obvious reasons?

That doesn’t mean English is a requirement or a deal breaker to be hired. That doesn’t mean French isn’t the common language. Besides, if someone already speaks the primary language, how does speaking a second or a third affect or compromise their ability to speak French? The truth is, you can’t ever hope to have a decent-paying job or a fulfilling life here without speaking decent French in Quebec. It’s simply not possible, no matter how some people will tell you otherwise. You will be missing out on far too much. But when some parties’ or pundits’ entire ideology relies solely on this shaky premise, you must make people believe it no matter what.

Montreal is a French city where many languages, cultures coexist

Montreal is so French that I did a double-take when I heard the STM make a COVID-19 announcement in English on the metro the other day. It felt so… out of place. That’s how little English encroaches in the public space, even in a city as multilingual and multicultural as Montreal. C’est en français que ça se passe ici, no matter how much some people want to convince you otherwise because it benefits their voting base or readership.

Since I’m getting things off my chest, I’m also tired of those (thankfully, few) Quebec anglophones who are constantly shocked that they can’t read a sign or a public survey about Montreal budget cuts in English even though they live in unilingual Quebec. How is that surprising? You live in Quebec! Either ask a family member or friend to help you translate it or, you know… learn to speak French! You. Live. In. Quebec!

I have often expressed my (perhaps, naïve) wish that Canada was truly bilingual and that everyone was taught both languages the minute they began their schooling. I know that dream of a bilingual country hasn’t and perhaps never will materialize. But Montreal is multilingual and multicultural in a way that most of us who live here cherish. Anglophones are proud that they can speak French. Allophones love that they can speak their mother tongue in their daily lives. The francophones that I know enjoy and value the linguistic and cultural diversity. Despite our failure to be a truly bilingual country, ordinary Canadians across the country are on waiting lists to send their kids to French immersion. I recognize the fear that francophones have of disappearing and I empathize with it. I acknowledge it’s a fear based on certain realities.

But some of it isn’t. It’s based on false premises of persecution and this absurd notion that there is hate for both the French language and the culture. It’s simply not true. For every loudmouth internet commentator, there are thousands of quiet Montrealers who coexist in respect and mutual affection for what they already know enriches their lives. I wish we spent more time giving these people the media space they deserve. They are the ones who make my city shine in the most brilliant way. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.