Commentary, Opinion

It’s time for a new approach to the language debate

I grew up in a predominantly anglophone West Island suburb. Although my parents’ eligibility under Quebec’s education regulations allowed me to attend English school, a significant portion of my elementary and high school education was in French. But as each year passed and the curriculum changed, I had less and less exposure to the language. Eventually, I got to the place where I remain today, feeling unable to properly communicate in French. Hearing similar stories from many of my friends, I know that I am not alone in this experience. 

For years, my dad encouraged me to take French more seriously—he is a Quebec-born anglophone, but marrying my francophone stepmother and living in the province nearly his entire life has made him both deeply appreciative of Quebecois culture and fluently bilingual. He wants me to experience similar joys and have the opportunity to build a future here, which is far more difficult when your French is lacking.

Nevertheless, I was stubborn––language politics made me feel like I had no future in Montreal because the francophone majority did not want me here. Given how much I love the city, I now regret this attitude and believe that the best way to tackle the language debate is for francophones to see anglophones as allies in protecting the French language, and vice versa. Perhaps if anglophones felt more welcomed and accommodated, more would be excited to learn French. Legislation proposed by Jacques-Cartier Member of National Assembly Greg Kelley and recently picked up by the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government, seeks to offer free French classes to English speakers. This concept offers a vision of a future where well-meaning anglophones can feel supported in their efforts to learn French rather than ostracized because it does not come naturally. 

Still, it would be wrong to claim that all francophones look down on anglophones. Protectiveness towards the French language is valid and understandable in the context of Quebec’s history, and most are merely afraid of losing their culture. But this protectiveness can lead to hostility and discriminatory policies, not only towards Quebec-born anglophones but even more notably to immigrants and refugees. For example, it can be incredibly difficult to find a job or even access some services online, over the phone, or in person without French fluency. 

These practical logistical barriers can also contribute to feelings of unwelcomeness towards those who do not speak French, which is compounded by a lack of resources that might help them conform to the province’s linguistic realities. The problem is not that anglophones disrespect their francophone neighbours or have no interest in learning. Rather, the standard approach and attitude embedded in Bill 101, the legislation governing language issues in Quebec, has left some anglophones feeling like a political nuisance.

While the province does offer financial aid to immigrants for French courses, expanding this offer to Canadian-born English speakers could signal a new era for language relations in Quebec.

Beyond promoting better cultural ties, alleviating the language barrier would make anglophones more likely to stay in the province, which would ultimately benefit Quebec as a whole. The province has long been subject to a “brain drain” whereby anglophone professionals leave due to a lack of opportunities. While this trend is particularly notable amongst graduates of English universities like McGill, similar trends or anxieties have been observed among the general anglophone population in recent years. 

Relations between English and French-speaking Quebecers cannot be repaired overnight. Decades of hostility in the media, in workplaces, and within personal relationships have undoubtedly created lasting tensions for which both anglophones and francophones are to blame. However, if the CAQ’s goal is truly to promote Quebec’s interests and preserve the French language, it may be time for a new approach to this ever-present debate and more accessible opportunities to learn are a good first step. Above all, I sincerely hope that the province’s future includes fewer stories of young people like me, whose disillusionment with language politics pushes them to plan their eventual escapes. 

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  1. Rolph Reinner

    Dude, you are from Montreal. How can you not have opportunities to speak French? Stop whining and learn some French.

    • LMAO You comment literally proves her point about the hostility anglophones face, even when they wanna learn French and submerge into Quebec culture (like the author).

      • Michel Hebert

        There is no excuse for an anglo born and raise in Quebec not to be able to read, write, and speak French. Learning a second language is not hard. You just have to practice little by little. Read a book, watch tv or a movie. How do you think I learned English? Not by saying it’s too hard.

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