Quebeckers watch their language

A commission appointed to study the future of French in Quebec will submit its report May 31.

A funny thing happened on the way to find out how Quebec's language laws are working: It turns out that what's most on people's minds isn't the quality of French, but the quality of English instruction in French schools.

The precariousness of the French language has long been a soul-churning issue in this province. But now, there's a growing concern among Francophones that their children aren't getting the English fundamentals they will need in an increasingly global economy.

"I want my children fluent in both languages," says Rachel Guay, a mother of three who lives on Montreal's north shore. The present system of English as a second language (ESL) is totally inadequate, she says. "Some of the ESL teachers don't even have a degree in the field. They're math or phys ed teachers, teaching some English on the side."

But according to Quebec law, because Ms. Guay and her husband were educated in French, their three young children are not entitled to public schooling in English.

It's time for that to change, she says, because English skills are necessary both for work, and for the Internet.

"I remember when I was growing up, long-distance calls were so expensive. But now, on the Internet, you can easily talk to people in Australia or Austria or Sweden, and it's all in English."

Francophones "don't see English as a threat that will take away their Frenchness," says Marie McAndrew of the (Francophone) University of Montreal. Rather, the Francophone community has been evolving from a homogeneous French-Catholic identity to a Quebecois identity that is more like the English-speaking community - "with a common language and a multiplicity of identities."

Last year Lucien Bouchard, Quebec's departing premier - long harried by militants within his Parti Quebecois calling for tightening the language laws - established a commission of inquiry "on the situation and future of the French language in Quebec."

Public hearings have been held across the province, and the commission will give a report on May 31.

Meanwhile, the access to English instruction Guay and others desire can be impossible.

Marva DeFilippo in nearby Pierrefonds explains the lengths to which her family went to obtain a government certificate allowing her youngest son entry to English schooling.

She lays the blue-and-white certificate, looking something like a government check, out on her dinner table.

"I had to get out my old school papers, and my husband had to do the same thing," to document that they had indeed been educated in English in Canada, Ms. DeFilippo says.

Maintaining the majority language

The Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, was adopted in 1977 as a sort of legislative dike to counteract the erosion of Quebec's French majority, as birthrates were tumbling from their earlier "Cheaper by the Dozen" levels, and immigrants were gravitating into English rather than French schools and communities. Bill 101 made French the language of business and channeled all those without a family history of English education in Canada into French-language schools.

"It makes sense," says Pierrette Thibault of the University of Montreal. "In every other country, immigrants are integrated into the majority language."

Seeking balance of cultures

"As a society with a small population within North America, French was definitely in danger," says Patricia Lamarre of the University of Montreal. Now, she adds, "The goal has been met."

Quebec is now upward of 80 percent Francophone.

Ms. Lamarre, a fourth-generation bilingual Quebecker, calls Montreal today "a much Frencher city" than the one she grew up in. She speaks of "a balanced bilingualism," where one language does not come at the expense of another.

"It's difficult for me to know when I hear the kids on my street whether French or English is their mother tongue," she adds.

"English schools have turned handsprings" to get more French into the curriculum over the years, says Gretta Chambers, chancellor emerita at McGill and chair of the education ministry's advisory committee on English-language instruction.

It's estimated that over 90 percent of students in English schools receive more than the minimum required French. About half get equal time with both languages, Ms. Lamarre says.

"All the [English] school boards have intensified the teaching of French," says Denise Lussier of McGill University, who testified recently before the Quebec commission, "whereas the French schools are often not even meeting the minimum for teaching of English."

Despite dissatisfaction on both sides, however, what Lise Winer of McGill finds striking is the degree to which parent groups in both communities have pressured schools for better language programs. "Parental involvement in the schools is the real revolution," Ms. Winer says. "Parents want more options for their kids."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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