Toula Drimonis: Efforts to ease language tensions right on the button

A collaborative (rather than combative) approach is key in helping newcomers integrate and acquire French in Quebec.

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During a recent walk, I found myself on Monk Blvd. in the Sud-Ouest borough where I came across a campaign by the local merchants’ association. A poster showcased a smiling woman with the message: “I’m learning French. Encourage me.”

At the bottom, a QR code links to information about the J’apprends le français mentoring program by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, which offers free, tailor-made workshops for allophones in business, two hours of French lessons per week at the workplace, and “immersive learning with active community support.”

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This seems like an excellent way not only to help newcomers integrate and acquire French while they earn a living, but also to ease tensions among the French-speaking majority who may mistakenly equate the increased presence of people unable to speak French immediately with the language being in danger — a concern often amplified by politicians and pundits wanting to capitalize on linguistic insecurities.

Statistics show more Quebecers than ever speak French; measuring the language’s viability based on people’s mother tongue (which indicates nothing about their ability — or inability — to speak French), only increases fears.

Skewed language measurements, accompanied by the double whammy of a recent increase in non-French-speaking asylum seekers and temporary workers — while severe labour shortages force employers to hire people who haven’t yet mastered the language — create the perception French is losing ground in Montreal. In this context, an innocuous “Bonjour-Hi!”, or a rare instance of an employee unable to serve someone in French, or even the sound of other languages being spoken, can become triggers for some.

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A whopping 94 per cent of Quebecers can communicate in basic French, according to the 2021 census. A recent study published by the Office québécois de la langue française shows 92 per cent of young allophones attend French schools. Bill 101 ensures newcomers send their children to French school. It’s logistically impossible for Quebec to become Louisiana, as some fear, when Quebec has the legislative power and financial resources to protect and promote French.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government should ensure those resources are used effectively instead of unfairly putting the onus on new arrivals. So much ink is spilled on that six per cent who don’t currently speak French, and so little on the 19 per cent of Quebecers the Fondation pour l’alphabétisation says are illiterate.

Tensions regarding language interactions often result from fundamental failures in communication. A newcomer isn’t necessarily aware of the unease created when they fail to serve someone in French, or the fears it conjures up for many. Newcomers simply use the language they can currently use. “In Quebec, a multilingual immigrant needs to speak French, but he doesn’t need French to speak,” notes Italo-Québécois writer Marco Micone, author of On ne naît pas Québécois, on le devient.

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A proud sovereigntist and defender of the French language, Micone warns that asserting a majority language must be done while respecting other languages because a citizen of a multi-ethnic society often has more than one language they use and identify with.

It’s not by filing complaints with the OQLF, as French Language Minister Jean-Francois Roberge recently suggested, that employees of businesses — that often have no choice but to hire temporary workers or new immigrants to stay open — will suddenly master the language. They need time to learn it.

Initiatives like the wearing of buttons by staff — “I’m learning French; thanks for speaking slowly!” — help ease tensions and encourage Quebecers to help them, creating a collaborative (rather than combative) situation. The buttons also protect newcomers from possible verbal abuse from those unwilling to offer them some grace.

Advising newcomers to say, “I’m learning French,” as opposed to saying, “I don’t speak French,” is also a helpful strategy. It immediately de-escalates tension, reminding a frustrated shopper that the willingness is there, which can make all the difference in the world.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake

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