Montreal·Opinion

To preserve French, Quebec policy must promote linguistic mixing

If we really want to improve the French skills of Quebecers, the efforts have to begin much sooner than college, writes Eric Deguire.

As the French Language Charter is overhauled, a key element is missing

Protesters march through downtown Montreal in a demonstration against Bill 96 in Montreal, Saturday, May 14, 2022. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Eric Deguire, a writer and French teacher in Montreal. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

While following the debate over Bill 96 in English and French circles in Quebec over the past few weeks, it appears that we're seeing the Two Solitudes re-emerge. A rift can once again be observed between the most vocal members on each side.

Many francophones wanted a more aggressive approach to protecting the French language at the CEGEP level — the colleges Quebec students attend after Grade 11. Anglophone groups wanted assurances that their right to pursue an education in English would be protected.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government opted for a policy that is somewhat convoluted — requiring English CEGEP students to take three of their core courses in French or take additional French language courses — angering people on both sides of the issue.

This change won't have a significant impact on the protection of the French language. At the same time, the anger seen in the anglophone CEGEP community seems unjustified as this is in no way an attempt at assimilation.

Many anglophone CEGEP students fear their grades will suffer if they have to take more French classes. This points out that not enough is being done at the elementary and high school levels, and teachers should keep an open mind as students adjust to this change. But in the end, it remains a great opportunity for students to improve their French skills, since business and other professional experiences in Quebec are often largely in French.

This debate over a minute change to the CEGEP linguistic program seems like a tempest in a teapot. If we really want to improve the French skills of Quebecers, the efforts have to begin much sooner than college.

It seems to me that English elementary schools — accessible to students whose parents received an English education in Canada — are now only English in name. Educators and parents proudly boast the quality of their French immersion programs, where students learn entirely in French up until third grade or even further, depending on the school. These intensive programs are supposed to give young Quebecers the best chance at mastering French at an early age, in order to function and flourish in our society.

On the French side, there's a similar phenomenon — often at the high school level, in private schools and international programs. Those schools promote the time they dedicate to English instruction, stressing that it is the language of business and the international community.

It seems to me that these supposed French and English schools are chasing the same objective: bilingualism, and perhaps even greater multilingualism for young Quebecers.

Reaching this objective is supposed to give them the best chance possible in the future. It will open doors — professionally, but also socially and even on a personal level. Appreciating literature and film in many languages is a beautiful experience that enriches our humanity.

If this is the objective we are seeking, we are missing out on the greatest way to achieve it. Keeping anglophones and the rest of Quebec's students in separate schooling systems does not create the social mixing that is necessary to achieve the true mastery of a second language.

Students who have gone to French school often end up bettering their English through experiences that are meaningful to them: television, movies, music and video games. This is due to the worldwide power and influence of American culture — which probably represent, today, the most important reason for protecting the French language in Quebec.

Speaking French only in classrooms will never be enough. Making friends that speak the language will make all the difference — and kids make most of their friends in school.

I suggest one schooling system that could be 80 per cent in French and 20 per cent in English through elementary school to high school. Core classes can be given in English and French, and adjustments can be made depending on the proficiency of the students, through the creation of enriched and other programs to support students with special needs.

But the objective should be first-language proficiency in French for all.

This, I believe, will lead to real integration, better harmony between social groups and, I truly hope, a strong French language in Quebec society for decades to come — while embracing the opportunity to master English and as many other languages as possible.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric Deguire

Freelance contributor

Eric Deguire is a teacher and writer. He teaches French at the adult education level in Montreal.

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