Quebecers’ multiple identities an inconvenient truth for some 

“Some Quebecers insist that the survival of the French language here necessitates pushing everything else aside. If you believe that to be the goal, it’s hard to appreciate today’s more complex Quebec, where many languages and cultures exist and overlap — but come together in French.”

L’Actualité recently published two back-to-back articles by Jean-Benoît Nadeau questioning the merits of using potentially outdated measurements to assess the vitality of the French language in Quebec. 

Sociologist, demographer and former head of the language statistics program at Statistics Canada, Jean-Pierre Corbeil was interviewed for the second article. Corbeil is a specialist in demolinguistics or linguistic demography, a branch of sociology that focuses on the statistical study of languages. 

Corbeil’s research concludes that insisting on measuring language identity by a) someone’s mother tongue or b) the language spoken at home is no longer sufficient or even accurate because in complex linguistic environments such as today’s Quebec — and most certainly Montreal — languages overlap, and multilingualism persists.

Language categorizations reductionist

Rigid definitions based on mother tongue or language spoken at home are often inaccurate and outdated. Estimates may diverge considerably. “Traditional demographers, who have the ear of the government, conclude the number of ‘francophones’ is decreasing because there are more allophones,” says Corbeil. “But the Quebec environment, and in particular Montreal, is multilingual. It’s a multilingualism that does not produce English unilingualism. Most allophones are oriented towards French.”

During an email exchange with Professor Corbeil, he told me he has an increasingly hard time with categorizing people as “allophones,” “francophones” or “anglophones,” because these concepts are often reductionist and linguistic practices are increasingly fluid. Here’s a quick example: 

For the purposes of a school questionnaire, a friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook asking: Whose maternal language is not the current language spoken at home? The responses were, shall we say, très montréalaises. 

“My maternal language is English, but I speak French at home with my husband and I’m actually more comfortable in French.”

“My husband doesn’t speak Chinese, but my kids are both fluent, so we switch to English or French when he’s around.”

“My husband’s first language is Spanish, but we don’t speak it at home.”

“My husband’s first language is French, but he’s more of an Anglo than I am now.”

“We go in and out of French all the time. My daughter prefers French even though my husband and I speak English to each other.” 

As a trilingual allophone, I alternate languages all the time, speaking and working primarily in English, interacting in public almost always in French and speaking in Greek when I’m with my mom. I don’t speak English and Greek instead of French. I speak English and Greek in addition to French. 

Protecting French without vilifying other languages

According to the latest census data, a whopping 32.8% of people on the island of Montreal declare a mother tongue that’s neither French nor English and 18.3% speak a third language at home. The most common third languages are Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Creole languages and Mandarin. That’s a lot of people whose realities resemble mine. 

Of course, Corbeil’s observations and conclusions clash with those of language hardliners who insist that an increase of other languages must automatically translate to a decrease of French. They insist that if the use of French is declining, immigrants, allophones and anglophones who speak other languages are to blame.

There are valid arguments to be made about the need for French to be protected and promoted in this province, without constantly resorting to facile attacks on every other linguistic minority. A solid way to encourage the linguistic transfer of new immigrants to the French language is to improve francization efforts. That means more money invested in more accessible and free French language classes, better and earlier French-language acquisition in all Quebec schools, and more efforts to include allophones and anglophones in policy decisions that will affect them and their children’s futures. 

Nationalist agenda feeds off linguistic insecurity

Despite legitimate concerns for the French language’s vitality, the status quo is far from the doom-and-gloom freefall some language hardliners like to push. Census data reveals more French than ever is spoken in the province and more immigrants are adopting French as their language of usage. A total of 94.4% of Quebecers can have a conversation in French and most of us, regardless of proficiency, spend a good part of our day speaking French at home, at work and most definitely when we venture outside in public. 

All around us, there’s concrete proof that Bill 101 is doing what it was intended to do: make French the common, everyday language of Quebec. But some prefer to focus only on exceptions and anecdotes, rather than the overwhelming rule. How else can constant demands for more legislation, more restrictions, more blame, more deflection from a lack of concrete solutions be justified? The denial is often politically and ideologically driven. 

Last week, columnist Emilie Nicolas, inspired by Corbeil’s research, pointed out in her column for Le Devoir that, according to these outdated definitions and unreliable measurements of a language’s vitality, she and many others she knows would be considered as “contributing to the decline of French.” 

“There are so many people who speak French, love French and live an important part of their daily lives in French, and who count, with the dominant methodology as proof of the decline of French.”

For daring to suggest what many multilingual Quebecers already know – measuring a language’s vitality is far more complicated than some think it is — and for questioning whether indicators such as mother tongue or language spoken at home are reliable or even relevant in today’s multilingual world, Nicolas was aggressively berated and dismissed online by those who refuse to believe this might be true. 

Multiple identities add, they don’t subtract  

There is a plurality in many Quebecers’ lives that some refuse to acknowledge or even appreciate. They see it as a threat to their dream of a monoculture. But Quebec and most certainly Montreal have never been and never will be a monoculture. 

Francization doesn’t mean erasure of all other languages and eventual assimilation. Successful francization simply requires cultural and linguistic integration and French language acquisition. That’s it. I still get to keep everything else that makes me, well… me. 

Bill 101 has allowed for an enormous linguistic shift in this province. It has and will continue to produce new generations of bilingual and trilingual Quebecers for whom the terms francophone, anglophone and allophone may no longer apply and for whom such singular and simple definitions will feel far too limiting. 

It’s hard to communicate that to people who insist the only way for the French language to survive in Quebec is to push aside everything else. If you believe that to be the goal, it’s hard to envision, appreciate or even love this current Quebec that is evolving: much more complex, multilingual Quebec where many identities, languages, and cultures exist and overlap — but come together in French. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.