action group future French language Quebec

The myth of the decline of French in Quebec: A $603M lesson in fear-mongering

“The French language will be better protected when it’s not constantly politicized.”

One of the most fascinating and yes, most frustrating things about Quebec’s constant linguistic friction is how differently Quebecers can and will interpret the same event — a political speech, an anecdote and even a study’s conclusions. 

Case in point, a recent study by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) indicating the use of French in the public sphere has remained stable in Quebec since 2007, elicited very different reactions.

Those confident that the state of the French language in Quebec is healthy immediately shared the OQLF study’s results, which paint quite a different picture from the gloomy reality usually depicted in other studies. “See? It’s doing fine!” they gloated. On the other hand, those convinced the state of French is hanging by a thread, its use declining and threatened by every non-French speaker in sight, opted to either completely ignore the study or chose to question its methodology. 

The cognitive dissonance is real. Several pundits immediately cast doubt on the OQLF’s results — a non-partisan government organization whose only long-standing goal is to protect and promote the French language and who would have no reason to contradict the government’s assertions. These very same pundits would, of course, have shared the OQLF study far and wide if its conclusions had been favourable to their own beliefs.

Some, like French Language Minister Jean-Francois Roberge, chose an odd third route: acknowledging the study, while appearing oddly oblivious to its conclusions. “With policies favouring the use of French and with the determination of all Quebecers, it will be possible to slow down the decline of French and reverse this trend,” Roberge posted on X, even though the results have absolutely nothing to do with recent CAQ policies like Bill 96. Roberge’s statement didn’t even attempt to explain or contradict the study, which concluded French has seen no noticeable decline in the public sphere in 17 years. He simply… ignored it, and proceeded to make a special announcement this week that the government is committing $603-million to reverse the decline of French — even though many of the measures included were previously made public as part of the 2024–25 budget.

Blind spots galore!

As linguistics demographer and the author of Le français en déclin? Repenser la francophonie québécoise, Jean-Pierre Corbeil, stated in a recent article, it’s simply impossible for those who are convinced of the calamitous state of French to accept positive findings because they are contrary to their own narrative of doom and gloom. What’s more, certain Quebec political parties’ platform rests on convincing Quebecers that their language and culture will die if they don’t quickly extricate Quebec from Canada. 

This manufactured panic is also why we’ve seen the number of articles published with the words “decline of French” in the Quebec media increase from 419 to 2,868 between 2020 and 2022, data also provided in Corbeil’s book. 

But the truth is that many of those who enthusiastically shared the OQLF study would have also ignored it if the conclusions had been different. Confirmation bias is real. 

Let’s face it: When it comes to language in this province, we have major blind spots. Our views are shaped by our upbringing, linguistic background, ideological and political views (which are in turn also often shaped by the media we consume), and what we selectively choose to focus on daily. 

If you’re a French-speaking Quebecer on a steady diet of alarmed pundits screaming at you daily about Quebec’s “demographic drowning” and “French disappearing” the odds of you believing that French is healthy and vibrant are slim. You’re also going to notice every single incident when someone was unable to help you in your language, even if it rarely happens, even if that person just arrived here a few months ago and is still learning. 

And if you’re a Quebec allophone or English-speaker who’s aggravated by constant political discourse that treats your mother tongue as a threat and a contagious disease, odds are that creeping resentment will make you perceive every minor effort and legislation promoting French as an annoying imposition. Perception is a huge part of what shapes our language debates in this province, and these perceptions are not always based on facts. More often than not, they’re based on feelings. 

French remains fragile, but it’s also healthy 

What if the truth resides in that grey area many refuse to visit? What if, as many linguists assert, the subject of language is far more nuanced? 

What if every Quebecer (and Canadian, too) simply acknowledged that the French language within our North American and Canadian contexts remains and will continue to forever remain vulnerable and in need of some protection? What if those who resent language legislation (not the punitive overreaching kind, like many elements of Bill 96 and the CAQ government’s underhanded attack on English universities, but solid and fair language legislation that protects French without vilifying every other language) finally conceded that learning and speaking French is not a suffocating imposition but a unique opportunity and perhaps also a joyful responsibility? What’s wrong with also helping protect a language that defines and shapes so much of what we essentially all call home, and which most of us — when we momentarily put linguistic squabbles aside — are in fact quite proud and happy to speak? 

At the same time, what if those constantly insisting the language is at death’s door stop clenching their fists so damn hard and breathed a little? More Quebecers than ever speak French today. More immigrants than ever are integrating into a French environment. Other languages also have a right to exist and be heard in Quebec, starting, of course, with English. It’s perfectly natural to hear multiple languages in a cosmopolitan and multicultural city like Montreal. 

Bill 101 completely altered the face of this province and was and continues to be very effective at ensuring French remains alive and well in Quebec. Acknowledging this progress isn’t complacency. We can celebrate the wins without losing focus of the challenges. Both realities can coexist. 

Because linguistic insecurity is so easily manipulated by Quebec politicians who routinely rile up existential fervour, we often lack the ability to discuss language issues rationally. Both sides dig in their heels, stop listening to each other and put their walls up to protect what they value. It leads us nowhere as a society. It does, however, allow politicians to capitalize on distracting us from their failings, allocating more money and resources where absolutely needed: public education and francisation. 

Constant fear-mongering creates an insecure society 

In my most recent book, Seeking Asylum: Building a Shareable World, in a chapter detailing how public opinion shapes public policy, I quote the late journalist Anne Kingston, who in turn references the work of Dr. James Doty, a neuroscientist at Stanford. For people to feel kindness, Kingston asserts, they need to feel safe. The more negative news they are exposed to, via newspaper headlines, politicians and pundits, the less compassionate they find themselves to be. “The human instincts for self-preservation and survival kick in when they’re increasingly exposed to negative narratives of ‘others’ out to get them.” While the topic there is migration, the populist manoeuvre to scare people into supporting increasingly punitive measures and legislation that marginalizes minorities can also be applied to language. As Dr. Doty says, “Ruthlessness allows for self-benefit, but it’s not a long-term survival strategy.”

And here’s why. As the years go by, and birth rates decrease and the population ages, Quebec (whether a province, or even a country, if that were to happen) will still increasingly rely on immigrants of all languages, and the efficacy and success of the francization process will determine French’s vitality here. How that happens and what form that linguistic integration takes will also dictate the relationship newcomers have with the French language. Will it be something they love and value and earnestly share with others or will it have been presented to them as an imposition and a joyless demand? Will it be a requirement they need to cross off their list, achieve under duress and constant cajoling, while simultaneously also being blamed for all the other languages they speak?

For language to be seen as an opportunity and an asset by newcomers, it needs to be presented as such. Newcomers take their cues from the society they join. If it’s constantly presented as a demand by a painfully self-aware society with a defeatist attitude agonizing over their eventual demise, how can it win over those it needs? Perception matters.

A grassroots movement is needed

There’s an expression that exists in all three languages I love. “Pour some water in your wine,” « Mettre de l’eau dans ton vin », «Βάλε λίγο νερό στο κρασί σου.» The ancient Greeks who were big fans of moderation considered drinking unmixed wine uncivilized. The expression today means favouring a balanced view. Essentially, a middle ground. 

While attending the QCGN-Montreal Gazette panel on language a few weeks ago, Professor Corbeil at one point muttered almost in frustration that “we need a grassroots movement.” I tend to agree. We need to push aside those who actively benefit from language friction and focus our attention on fact-based solutions and those who desire and appreciate more nuanced and balanced conversations about the French language in Quebec. 

If we’re currently witnessing a small surge of newcomers in Montreal who haven’t yet mastered French (temporary workers, international students, asylum seekers and refugees) whose presence may have slightly altered the city’s current linguistic composition, there’s no need to panic. We have the means and the ability to address this, by allocating more funds precisely where needed. 

None of these recent arrivals (many of whom aren’t even here in any permanent fashion) have the power to adversely affect a power dynamic that undeniably favours the French-speaking majority — especially in a province where, outside of Montreal, people are mostly unilingual French. To pretend that they can is deliberate fear-mongering. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.