FEATURE: More than just a language barrier

Features by

The shiny brochures in the Welcome Centre may romanticize student life, but they cannot exaggerate this fact: McGill is a unique institution. As an internationally renowned, English university located in the centre of a French-speaking province, most McGill students come in contact with a tongue that they do not understand every day, whether it be French, Arabic or Japanese. While this causes occasional confusion, most McGill students enjoy the exposure they get to different languages.

Cultural diversity and a multilingual studentry aside, McGill remains an English university. Although only 60 per cent of the school’s population claims English as their native tongue, it is easy to be on campus for an entire day without uttering a word in any language other than English. In a province where over 80 per cent of residents speak French, McGill’s preference for English is a welcoming one for a number of students whose French is, shall we say, moins que parfait.

But McGill students who grew up speaking French have a radically different experience.

Representing only 20 per cent of McGill’s student body, francophone students often feel intimidated upon entering a predominantly English-speaking university. “The language barrier is certainly something that prevents a lot of francophone students from getting involved on campus,” says Wendy Brett, Assistant to Francophone Students in the First Year Office. Yet is McGill’s predominant use of English the only obstacle that francophone students encounter?

Partly. In addition to the obvious language issue, McGill’s francophone students also find themselves in a tougher social situation than the English-speaking students. Francophones are “less likely to get involved on campus,” asserts Sophie Zhang, former president of the Resue des Etudiants Francophones, now known as the Centre des Etudiants Francophones (CEF). “The francophone community is very self-contained,” agrees Jessica (last name withheld), U3 Civil Engineering. “I’ve made a few English-speaking friends at McGill, but not many.” Brett believes that is because “a lot of French-speaking students are Montreal-based, and so often they will not live in [campus] residence; they will have friends that they have made at CEGEP. Because of that, they are more socially self-sufficient.”

Since Montrealers are more “self-sufficient,” the CEF has become less focused on social events and more interested in service. “Our members want us to be more like a resource than a social club,” Zhang says. “The low turnout was disappointing for a lot of [social] events.”

Instead of holding parties, the CEF aims to help McGill’s francophone population exercise rights as students who represent a minority group. Pasqale Dequen, former Treasurer of the Resue, adds that “we want to integrate francophone students [into McGill] to the best of our ability. … McGill is a foreign environment for everyone who comes in. Why not create a group or society that makes people feel more comfortable where they are?”.

But are McGill’s native French speakers interested in integration? David-Marc Newman, Francophone Commissioner to the Students’ Society, claims that many incoming students from Montreal perceive McGill as a “bubble,” because it is isolated from the urban life in Montreal.

Indeed, getting out of the McGill “bubble,” rather than getting into it, appears to be a large concern for McGill’s French-speaking students. Alexandre de Lorimier, Editor-In-Chief of Le Délit, McGill’s only French newspaper, claims that his readers are mainly interested in local Montreal culture rather than issues relating to McGill administration. “Most of our readers also read the Daily and the Tribune. They know they can get their news…about what’s going on campus via other publications.” Le Délit’s largest section is culture.

As the voice of the McGill francophone community, Le Délit prints only 6,000 copies per week, while the McGill Daily publishes 11,000. They also receive less money. “We share the funding with the Daily… two-thirds of the budget goes to the Daily, one third goes to us,” de Lorimier says. However, de Lorimier does not appear to be phased by his paper’s smaller budget and readership. “We have a smaller readership, for sure. We’re a much smaller community.”

Small as it is, the community is certainly distinct. Lorimier claims that Le Delit represents a “different perspective” from the Daily. Le Délit’s angle, on politics especially, is “different from an English-speaking newspaper. We have both Federalist and Sovereigntist people on our staff.” Le Delit, in effect, represents politics in a way that is more relevant to francophone students.

McGill’s French-speakers may be a minority, but this does always mean that they are unrepresented, culturally, politically or otherwise. “I wouldn’t call the [francophone students] a minority population,” asserts Brett. “The word minority implies a sense of persecution, and I don’t necessarily feel that that is the case here.”