Montreal·First Person

To protect the French language, non-francophones must be encouraged — not punished

French is not dying, it is co-habitating and we all want to help. I hope lawmakers keep that in mind as this bill is debated in Quebec City.

As Quebec revises its language laws, multilingual households should be embraced

As a multilingual francophone, Joanna Kanga says accessible training is the right way to preserve French, not by discouraging the use of other languages. (Shutterstock)

This First Person article is the experience of Joanna Kanga, a student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Concerned about the increased use of English in Quebec society, the province's political parties have been mulling over how to preserve French as the dominant language in recent years. With Bill 96 tabled last week, the proposed changes are sweeping — including placing new limits on who can attend anglophone colleges, known in the province as CEGEPS.

But dividing Quebecers by their mother tongue fails to show the linguistic richness of life in this province. English-speaking Quebecers do not solely live in English. They also spend parts of their daily lives in French as some even choose to attend francophone CEGEPS and universities.

French-speaking individuals also live in English and study in the language of their choice. This choice does not solely depend on the language of instruction, but a plurality of factors including the type of programs offered by those institutions.

French is my mother tongue; it is the first language I use at home and the language I used at school for most of my academic journey. However, I am also on the board of an organization advocating for the interest of English-speaking youth and I am completing my bachelor's degree at an anglophone institution. The president of the board, a friend of mine, is an anglophone who is studying law at a francophone university. There is plurality in the Identities of Quebecers.

I completed my CEGEP years in a francophone institution, but I also applied to anglophone CEGEPs, not only because the transition to an anglophone university would have been easier, but because some had interesting particularities within their law and science programs.

Furthermore, as a student occupying a part-time job, proximity to my work and home were key factors.

The 17.5 per cent enrollment threshold for non-francophones to anglophone CEGEPs imposed by the bill limits access to an already limited environment. In the academic context, this results in higher averages required for admissions. Students like me, who have to combine a part-time job with their studies, often see their grades affected by the workload and many will see their chances of admission decrease.

Studies by Statistics Canada show that the proportion of allophones — those whose mother tongue is neither French nor English — is growing in Quebec. Among allophones, English is used increasingly at work. In Montreal, 25 per cent of employees said they use French and English equally and 18.7 per cent said they used French only. When put in context and asked why they used English at work, the respondents highlighted the need to provide a service and communicate with others in Quebec and elsewhere.

When government officials state that French is declining at home and work, I tend to hear that unilingual French-speaking individuals are in decline. This thought is problematic to me. The problem is not English, nor is it municipal paperwork being filed in English. The problem is a lack of French training. In 2019, Quebec Liberal and anglophone MNA, Gregory Kelley, proposed legislation that would make free French language training accessible to all, an idea included in Bill 96.

And more recently, Quebec Solidaire members pointed to the necessity to apply a French certification process to companies with 10 employees or more.

This is how you protect the French language — by building off the work and will of dedicated non-French speakers instead of punishing the use of other languages or making it harder for francophones to attend anglophone CEGEPS.

Québec is not just French-speaking. It is English speaking, it is Arabic speaking, it is Spanish speaking. Each of these communities understand the importance of French and want to contribute to its survival. What they need are the means to do so.

Free French training should be made available to all, especially in the workplace where most immigrants spend their time and make their first contact with Quebec society. But no one should be forced to attend a francophone institution in order to receive higher education.

For anglophone students graduating from university and seeking employment in Quebec, for allophone immigrants, for interprovincial and foreign temporary workers, for French-speaking Quebecers who have lived outside of the province for a long time and need to brush up — what is needed is training.

Some will say "Hi" first at work just to submit an essay in French later that day. Others will say "Bonjour" at home and order a cappuccino in English. The use of other languages becomes a threat only if one can't speak the language we all wish to protect.

In an interconnected world, we can find strength in having command of more than one language. Bilingualism has been an asset, so far, in my academic and professional journey. Multilingualism is an essential part of our daily lives, but French remains a part of our heritage we all seek to protect. However, we must all learn it in order to cherish it, celebrate it and preserve its place within our beautiful province.

Communicating in multiple languages in your daily life is not French abolitionism. The celebration of the French language, the current version of Bill 101 and the opportunity given by English-speaking institutions to their students to learn and use French shows that the importance of the French language is recognized among multilingual institutions.

French is not dying, it is co-habitating and we all want to help. I hope lawmakers keep that in mind as this bill is debated in Quebec City.

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Joanna Kanga is a student at McGill University completing her bachelor of arts in political science with a double minor in economics and international development. She is a panellist on the CBC Montreal's Let's Go and the outreach and event coordinator of the book club Black Girls Gather.