September 2nd, 2011
I grew up in Quebec before Bill 101 – the controversial language Bill known less familiarly as the Charter of the French Language. It came into effect in 1977, by which time I had fled the province for less turbulent political climates. By decree, then, the Bill mandated French as the official language of Quebec. The debate around the enactment of the Bill was loud and emotional. After several centuries of social dominance, the English/Anglo communities of the province were understandably threatened by what they saw as a draconian measure to silence their tongues. No group ever likes to be told it doesn’t hold the fort anymore.
Indeed, although I had moved to the other side of the country I could hear the cries of panic from friends and acquaintances, and from the English press and community leaders who all thought the Bill was the first sign of Armageddon. Almost all my friends moved around that time, heading for Ontario or Europe—anywhere but Quebec.
Before this all happened there was mild and inconsistent pressure on us anglos to learn French. Immersion classes or schools did not exist. French lessons started formally in the third grade, what some might say is already too late for pure proficiency, but at least we were getting a start. By the time we graduated from high school we were required to pass general matriculation examinations in both written and oral French. This certainly gave us quite a linguistic advantage over the rest of the English-speaking largely unilingual country. Taking French courses at McGill seemed a natural extension of my education thus far, and so it was that I pursued a number of these, reading Flaubert and Zola, if sometimes with difficulty, in the original.
The daily exchange of conversation in stores and restaurants, however, was still very uneven. Generally, people addressed you in English first or, more commonly, only. Most of us grew up into our teens with a rudimentary French vocabulary and not a lot of social opportunity to practice it. Bilingualism was This was normal.
Bill 101 changed everything. It was the result of years of frustration among francophones who by far held the majority in Quebec population but who heard little of their language in the commercial arenas of daily life. It didn’t make a lot of sense; it did reflect the awkwardness of Quebec’s unique place in Canada, however. What had once been normal suddenly became dated and even stained with prejudice and discrimination. Many things almost suddenly changed about how business was to be conducted in Quebec, but perhaps nothing was more controversial than education. Parents who wished their children to be educated in English had to make a special case based on their own speech history. Even today, the conditions under which children are taught is being tweaked, and always in the service in strengthening the official language of the province.
Anglos griped but they sent their children to French immersion schools and a new generation of Quebecers grew up to become elegantly bilingual. I just spent some holiday time north of Montreal in the Laurentians and I could not help remarking how fluent everyone was. It’s really enviable. Everyone, and I do mean everyone under the age of, say, 50, goes back and forth from English to French and back again with the ease of breathing. Bill 101 actually worked. It had, ironically, an amazingly powerful effect on the anglo community, enriching the linguistic lives of millions of people. It was more than a social experiment that made this happen; it was a law, and its effects were to safeguard against the loss of one language while ensuring a truly bilingual society.
Research has shown time and again that children who acquire a second or third language early on develop faster, have better critical skills, and can absorb more information in general;. It makes sense. You can practically see the brain pan stretching once it has to handle so many different words. These days, many university humanities departments have been working in the opposite direction, cutting second language requirements and even cutting language departments altogether. This seems to bloody counterproductive. In this historical moment, in this time, we should all be learning as many languages as we possibly can. There are a lot of things about Quebec society that me crazy, but Bill 101 isn’t one of them. Vive le différence!