History expert pushing back on idea French language in Quebec is in steep decline

Click to play video: 'Is French really in decline in Quebec?'
Is French really in decline in Quebec?
WATCH: The National Assembly will begin public hearings in September for the government’s new language reform bill that aims to reinforce and protect the French language. Bill 96 was tabled amid concerns raised by the CAQ government over the decline of French in Quebec. As Global’s Raquel Fletcher reports, however, not everyone agrees with that assessment. – Sep 2, 2021

A Canadian history expert is pushing back against reports the French language is in steep decline in Quebec in favour of English.

The national assembly will begin public hearings in September for the government’s new language reform.

But is this fear that French could become a minority language really valid? Not everybody thinks so.

When the Quebec government tabled its French language reform in May, Premier François Legault explained that the reason was simple.

“The objective is clear. We want to make sure that, in the future, we still speak French,” he told reporters.

According to Statistics Canada projections, the proportion of Quebecers whose mother tongue is French could drop to 70 per cent by 2036.

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“When you look at the figures, we’re not going in the right direction,” Legault said in May.

That statistic concerns people of various political stripes.

“The level of French-speaking Quebecers has never dropped under 80 per cent in the past 150 years,” said Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.

St-Pierre Plamondon pointed out the statistics also show a decline in French in the workplace. Forty per cent of employers require new hires to speak a second language, usually English.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, some say, because Quebec is becoming more bilingual.

“There’s a fair bit of marriage across linguistic lines, notably in Montreal,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

He himself speaks three languages: English, French and Yiddish. Jedwab said before Quebec implements its language reform, there needs to be an in-depth discussion about bilingualism, something the province promotes to attract international business.

“But bilingualism is an evil danger for the future of French in Montreal,” Jedwab said ironically, summarizing a common argument.

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“You are seeing that sort of double-speak on the part of a lot of officials,” he said.

As for the argument that the French language is emerging as a minority language on the island of Montreal, Jedwab says, “That’s just utter nonsense.”

He said French is only a minority on the island of Montreal if you combine the number of anglophones and allophones and treat them as one language group. In fact, there are twice as many francophones as anglophones on the island of Montreal and the number of people who speak French at home has increased slightly to 55.3 per cent in 2016, up from 55.2 per cent in 2006.

Jedwab said this proves that French is not in free fall in Quebec and the projected decline is grossly exaggerated.

“It’s a very ethnically-driven, I would suggest, type of projection of who’s a francophone in Quebec,” he said.

“It means excluding all those people who are Haitian, Arabic, Spanish and various other groups that are second-generation French speakers, and/or that are equally French.”

Jedwab goes so far as to suggest the problem is being blown out of proportion by politicians in order to promote a nationalist agenda and create insecurity among francophones.

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Not so, said the PQ leader.

“There’s no real francophones. You speak French, or you don’t, and you use it on a daily basis at your workplace, with your friends and your family, or you don’t use it,” said St-Pierre Plamondon.

Quebec’s minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, declined an interview with Global News, but a spokesperson responded to some questions in an email.

“The numbers are clear and don’t lie. Strong, rapid and concrete action is needed more than ever to reverse the decline and ensure the future of French in Quebec,” said Élisabeth Gosselin.

Demographer Alain Bélanger said there’s no doubt there’s a decline.

“This is a demographic fact,” he said.

He explained that it’s because of something called linguistic transfer.

“Fertility and mortality are the same for each group, English and French,” he said. “Migration is the only component of demographic change that can influence the linguistic balance in Quebec.”

In Quebec, 55 per cent of allophone newcomers, or their children, will speak French. The other 45 per cent will choose English. Two-thirds of immigrants said they spoke French in 2010. Today, that number has dropped to less than 50 per cent.

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During his May 13 press conference, Jolin-Barrette explained this was a problem for the survival of French and that he wants the linguistic transfer to increase to 90 per cent.

“For example, in the rest of Canada, it’s 99 per cent of linguistic transfer to the English language,” he said.

“That will be hard,” Bélanger admitted.

The PQ said a tendency towards more English in the public space could threaten French in the province.

“When the state and the workplaces are bilingual, what we see in reality is that it becomes an English-speaking workplace,” said St-Pierre Plamondon.

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