Common language | An appeal to my fellow English-speaking citizens

Making French the common language, that is, the language normally used in the public space to communicate with each other, remains a key objective of Quebec language policy. The dominant language on the streets and in businesses also sends an important signal to newcomers. Along with the working language, it will largely determine the future of linguistic integration.

This linguistic integration will normally happen on its own. However, things get complicated in Greater Montreal, where English is used as much as French. This is not new. This linguistic duality has existed for more than two centuries. What has changed is the place of English in our lives. At the rate at which globalization is progressing, the time is not far away when all (or almost all) Montrealers will understand English.

I invite my fellow Anglo-Montrealers to rethink their linguistic choices in this world where English has become almost indispensable.

As heirs of the universal language, the members of the Anglo-Montreal community bear a particular responsibility today. French cannot become the common language, at least in Montreal, without its support.

The (singular) linguistic dynamics of Montreal

The rise in the use of English at work is irreversible in Montreal as elsewhere. However, a work tool is not a common language. Outside of Montreal, with some exceptions, the distinction is clear. The young bolé who leaves his lab in Quebec (or Paris), regardless of his mother tongue, will not think of addressing a passerby in English, even if he uses English a good part of his time at work. In Quebec, as in Paris, the choice of public language does not arise.

To understand the unique character of the Montreal case, let’s imagine Greater Paris with three million English speakers, no less Parisians for all that, with their own institutions and the right, of course, to use their language in public space. But, the language of the Anglo-Parisians is also, we know, the lingua franca universal, therefore understood (and increasingly) by French speakers. The result in our imaginary Paris is not difficult to guess: English will establish itself as the dominant common language in many neighborhoods, particularly in the center.

The reader will have guessed that this fictional English-speaking Paris describes Montreal. It is the conjunction of two realities – the demographic weight of the English-speaking population (around one million in Greater Montreal) and the universal nature of English – which makes its condition exceptional. If our linguistic minority, however large, spoke a language whose usefulness was limited to its home territory (say, Swedish or Czech), the incentive to learn it would be limited. However, learning English no longer has much to do with the demographic weight of the English-speaking population.

Young French-speaking Quebecers, just like young French or young Germans, are increasingly bilingual. This is a good thing, but on the other hand, it reduces the incentive for English speakers to use French in public spaces.

Without a counterbalance, English risks increasingly establishing itself as the easy way out, as it does today in the European Union, especially among young people. This counterweight can only come from our English-speaking fellow citizens.

Why should English speakers care about the future of French?

Making French the common language of Montrealers is impossible without the English-speaking population also making it their public language. It will be a choice and also an effort: to use a learned language when you can more easily use your language. It’s a choice I made⁠1 when I arrived in Montreal from New York quite a few years ago. Which brings me to the central question: why should English speakers care about the future of French?

The easy answer is: out of solidarity with their French-speaking fellow citizens. But people rarely act out of altruism. There are also more self-serving reasons, let me suggest, why anglophones have a vested interest in defending French.

French in Quebec is more than a means of communication. It is also the guarantor of what should be called Quebec’s distinct social model.

Quebec is certainly not perfect. But its social model (progressive tax, subsidized daycare, free CEGEP, etc.) has produced a society that stands out in North America on several well-being indicators (life expectancy, inequalities, happiness, etc.), a key attribute of its distinct character. no less than language. The two are linked.

The main potential gain would be in terms of perceptions; namely the perception that French is threatened, which is widely shared by the French-speaking population for reasons that should not require further explanation. Imagine the message sent to newcomers and French speakers if the majority of Anglo-Montrealers insisted tomorrow on speaking French in public spaces. However, policy is largely driven by perceptions.

1. Read “Making English Montreal part of the solution to protecting French”

The author is participating in the free conference Making Common Cause: Language in Quebec, which takes place on April 4.

Consult the conference page Making Common Cause: Language in Quebec

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