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Keeping The French Language Alive In Quebec


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

If you've been to Montreal, you may have been greeted in stores with the phrase bonjour hi. That friendly greeting could soon be illegal. The Parti Quebecois, which advocates for establishing Quebec as a sovereign state, is leading the polls for next month's provincial election. Saving French, Quebec's official language, and banishing English is a passionate concern for the PQ.

If they win a majority, they intend to tighten Quebec's already established language laws. Businesses will be fined for saying bonjour hi or advertising in English. And education in English will be restricted. Julie Sedivy is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary. She says the idea behind language laws is to preserve a culture and establish French as the language of the workplace in Quebec.

JULIE SEDIVY: During the '60s and '70s, despite the fact that French speakers were in the majority in Quebec, English was really the language of power and the language of commerce. So since then, there's been a very focused attempt to reverse that and to make French the language that is heard in the workplace and in the government as the official language.

So the reason bonjour hi is controversial is because it signals a symmetry, right, a willingness to engage in either English or French as the language of commerce. And that runs counter to the goal of trying to establish French very firmly as the language that you expect and have to hear in the workplace.

RATH: Why is this so important, the French language issue in Quebec?

SEDIVY: The pull of English globally is extremely strong and magnetic. I think of it as kind of a linguistic equivalent of the Borg, you know, from Star Trek. We are the Borg. You will assimilate resistance as futile, that whole idea. And there's evidence that immigrant populations into North America very rapidly lose the languages that they came with in the space of a couple of generations. This is even true for Spanish speakers who come from Mexico, for example.

And this is being felt all over the world. To some extent, it's also happening with other powerful languages such as Russian or Spanish. In fact, Latvia, just about 15 years ago, implemented language laws that were very consciously modeled after Quebec's language laws in response to what they perceive to be the magnetic pull of Russian and the desire to preserve Latvian as the national language.

RATH: Last month, Quebec Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities Diane De Courcy, she said that Montreal is not a bilingual city. Quebec is not a bilingual Quebec. The last time I was in Montreal, speaking English was not a problem. This is just rhetoric, yeah?

SEDIVY: Yeah. The reality is quite different. If you look at bilingualism rates across Canada, roughly 10 percent of Canadians outside of Quebec speak French. So that's a relatively small percentage, despite the fact that this is one of the two official languages. Within Quebec, about four times as many francophones in Quebec are French-English bilingual as people outside of Quebec.

So despite the fact that French restricts language choice to the extent that it does, that the opportunities to be educated in English are dramatically curtailed, the desire to learn English is still so great that four times as many French-speaking Quebecers will understand and speak English as the reverse being true outside of Quebec. And I think that's where some of the renewed interest in further restricting the language laws is coming from.

RATH: Julie Sedivy is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary. Thank you.

SEDIVY: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.