Languages are one of the most important components of culture. Canada is fortunate to have two official languages, something which defines who we are as a nation.
Yet we all know that the two languages are not on equal footing. Far more people speak English than French, and francophones have been fighting for centuries to preserve their language in a largely English continent.
Over the last several weeks concerns have risen about results from the 2021 census showing fewer people identifying as francophone in Canada. It’s imperative that as a society we protect the French language. Yet it’s also important to pick strategies to maintain French that have the best chance of working.
A recent focus has been on the number of people in Québec speaking French at home, especially among immigrants. Programs in Québec teaching immigrants French have been a major success story of the past several decades. Yet looking at how many non-francophone immigrants end up speaking French to their families is not a good measure of how well immigrants are adapting to the local culture of Québec. Immigrant parents want their children to speak their native languages as well, and so are highly likely to speak those languages when at home. If an anglophone or francophone Canadian family were to move to, say, Germany, it’s unlikely that they’d start to speak German to their children. They would almost certainly send their children to school in German, ensuring that they learn the local language and hence adapt to life in their new country, while also keeping the family’s native language as what they speak to each other. Rules forcing immigrant children to attend school in French mean almost all become fluent in the language. This is true even though they often continue to speak their native languages at home.
A much better measure of the vitality of French is the percentage of the population able to converse and work in the language. This is the major success story of the last several decades in Québec, with the percentage of those able to converse in French significantly higher than 90%.
Attracting more francophone immigrants is also a clear priority for the Legault government. Although some will come from Europe, there are generally not enough potential immigrants from that part of the world to meet the economic needs of the province and fill the skills gap Québec faces. Hence a more francophone centric immigration policy will need to focus more on other French-speaking countries, the vast majority of which are in Africa. Yet people from countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal often felt targeted by the secularism laws the Legault government passed over the last several years. If the province wants to attract more francophones, care will need to be taken in crafting policies and communication approaches that make immigrants from these countries feel welcome.
There are no easy answers to maintaining the vitality of Canadian French in a globalized world. At the very least we should approach the problem with the most realistic game plan possible.