PITY THE FRANCOPHONE PARENT IN QUEBEC! The language of education in Quebec - why does the majority continue to favour the minority?

By John N. Buchanan on March 13, 2013

Ever since the PQ returned to power (and in the election campaign beforehand) language has been back on the political agenda.  A draft law with new provisions to bill 101 is presently before the National Assembly,  proposing to tighten the language rules for businesses with at least 26 employees (down from 50) and requiring CEGEPs to give priority to English students first before granting spots to francophones.  In addition, the proposed law -  in a perverse way - guarantees that any French employee cannot be fired because they are unilingual, raising the spectre of an endless parade before the tribunals of wrongful dismissal cases, based on language, and a fear amongst businesses of hiring unilinguals.

The PQ continues to bemoan the so-called decline of French although  recent studies issued in no way suggest that French in the workplace and at home is in significant decline.  Jean-Francois Lisée, the minister responsible, continues his chameleonic performance, encouraging Anglophones to feel that they are Quebeckers (apparently we don’t even need to ask, we are entitled to do so of our own volition), and lauding the prospects of Montreal as a dynamic multicultural gateway to the rest of the world. Bonjour-hi, is, he says, an acceptable greeting in a store or restaurant.

Of course, the world has evolved a great deal since the first election of a PQ government in 1976. Globalisation has dramatically affected the nature of flows of goods and services, English as the lingua franca is perhaps more dominant than ever in light of this globalisation, and doing business both from an import and export perspective cannot be done in French alone, unless with France or some of its former colonies.

Having lived and studied in Europe for many years, I can report that a common approach of small countries (Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc..) is to establish an education system which at a very young student age teaches at least two and often three or four languages , preparing its population well to cope with the outside world. My Norwegian friends speak Norwegian, English, French and German. My Dutch friends likewise.

There is no evidence that I am aware of to suggest that the early teaching of many languages has threatened and diminished the use of Norwegian Dutch Danish and Swedish in those countries. Those countries have done rather well on the economic stage due to the strength of their education systems, and IKEA will happily sell you one of their furniture assembly kits with instructions in dozens of different languages.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that language learning is best done at a very young age, and that the process becomes more difficult as one ages. Notwithstanding this, the most liberal proposal of any Quebec government  since 1976 was the recent liberal proposal that the sixth grade in French elementary schools be given entirely in English (on the theory that learning a language takes roughly 1500 hours, or about 2500 for Chinese).

Now here is the rub.  Since 1976 the  percentage of Anglophones in Quebec who are bilingual has risen dramatically and parents  who studied in English primarily can send their kids to either French or English school. As a result, those Anglophones who qualify have free choice in the language of education of their children. I have certainly taken advantage of this and all of my kids studied at least four years in the French public education system in Quebec and also studied many years in English schools. 

What of the francophone parents in Quebec who wish to bilingualise their child at a young age?  Impossible, je suis desolé de le dire.  Francophones are prohibited from sending to kids to English school until the age of CEGEP, well past the optimum point for learning a language. Unless, of course, they have enough spare cash to send their kids to private English or bilingual schools, and where the fees will often far exceed  the existing  university tuition fees in Quebec universities (and will not be tax deductible).

Is this nanny statehood taken to its extreme or legitimate protection of the embattled  and threatened French language?  Ask any parent in Quebec  whether they wish their kids to be bilingual, more bilingual than they were at an early age, and one can easily predict a resounding majority of Ouis. Yet amongst francophones,  it is only the upper class which can make this choice with their chequebooks.

Let me suggest that the free choice of a fully bilingual language education should be, in Quebec, a democratic right for all, and that our society would be immensely more prosperous open and tolerant were this the case.


John Buchanan is a media financier, real estate developer  and lawyer presently based in Montreal.



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