Tag Archives: Canada

Is French Still Vulnerable in Quebec?

There had been an unofficial ceasefire in Quebec’s language wars for most of the past decade. But late last year, voters returned the separatist Parti Québécois to office. The PQ, which leads a coalition government, is pushing to tighten the province’s laws protecting the French language.

One episode has caught the public’s attention. Last month, inspectors from the government language agency, the Office québécois de la langue française, objected to the repeated use of the word “pasta,” instead of the French word “pâtes,” on a Montreal restaurant menu.

One global outcry and one universally-used catchphrase (“Pastagate”) later, Quebeckers of all linguistic stripes are wondering about the health of the French language, and of the government agency that promotes it.

Huntingdon, Quebec mayor Stéphane Gendron (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Huntingdon, Quebec is just a few miles north of the New York border. It’s a small mill town founded by the British. Well, it was a mill town; now all seven mills are closed. Huntingdon’s mayor, Stéphane Gendron oversees a mixed community of French and English speakers.

“When we have our meetings, we usually we switch from French to English in the same sentence,” said Gendron. “It’s like breathing air, we don’t care.”
Sounds reasonable, but that linguistic back-and-forth in Huntingdon is technically against Quebec’s law.

Gendron recalled receiving an email last year from the Office québécois de la langue française. He said the email informed him that he and his administration are “not authorized to communicate in English with our citizens.”

To communicate in English would be to violate the French language charter. The charter, which came into effect in 1977, made French the official language of Quebec.

The only municipalities exempt from using French are those with a majority of native English speakers. Huntingdon has a slight majority of French speakers. So, no official business can be conducted in English. No public meetings, no street signs, no notices about garbage collection.

Quebec’s assembly is holding hearings on Bill 14, a measure that would tighten the province’s language laws. The bill would strip dozens of cities of their bilingual status, and it would require businesses with 25 or more employees to communicate in French. Currently, only larger companies have to do that.

Quebec’s French Language Office initially objected to the word “pasta” on the menu of an Italian restaurant. Will they target other Montreal restaurants that use non-French words?


The bill has lost support since Pastagate. But the hearings will continue for six weeks, according to its sponsors—because they say they want to show that French remains vulnerable in Quebec, and should be further protected.
Among them is Jean-François Lisée, a prominent member of the ruling Parti Quebecois.

“People say ‘why do you need to do that? Let things go as they stand, go with the flow,’” said Lisée. “Well, in the rest of north America they let things go for French, and it didn’t go well for French.”

English has what Lisée calls a massive gravitational pull, which can only be countered with new regulations. The aim is to maintain Quebec’s “public face” as a French-speaking region.
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“If we hold this line, we’re going to stay distinct.,” said Lisée. That linguistic distinction—being Francophone in North America—is what gives Quebec its economic and creative edge, say French language protectionists. Lisée has little time for those don’t buy the argument: “If everybody else doesn’t understand it—well, that’s the price you pay for being original.”

But even among Quebeckers who do understand the need for language protection, there are some who question how it’s enforced. Many businesses have come forward saying they are being newly targeted by Office québécois de la langue française inspectors for using foreign words—like the words “on” and “off,” discovered on a restaurant microwave. The language agency went so far that the government was forced to rein in “overzealous” inspectors. Now the office has a new director, with orders to be more flexible. What’s more, support for Bill 14 has waned. The Parti Québécois’ coalition partners say they won’t vote for it without substantial rewriting.

Nothing, however, is simple in Quebec’s language politics. Not all Francophones support more protection for French. And not all Anglophones oppose it.

“I’m an English speaker and it’s not really what most English speakers in Quebec speakers feel,” said Montreal writer Julie Barlow. “But I’m entirely in favor of a certain control over language in Quebec because we are small population in a huge sea of English speakers.”

Barlow doesn’t understand why some municipalities want to hang onto their bilingual status. “I don’t have much sympathy for it.,” she said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in a tiny community of English speakers and live insulated and isolated from the rest of the province.”

The Montreal suburb of Cote Saint-Luc is one such place. It’s currently permitted to communicate bilingually with its residents. But it would stand to lose its bilingual status, should the Bill 14 become law. It also happens to be home to a large Jewish population. Among them, Shelley Rothman-Benhaim.

Rothman-Benhaim’s landlady is in her late 80s, and “she really needs the English communiqués.” The landlady’s native language is Yiddish. She also speaks English but not French—for good reason.

“When the Jews first came to Quebec,” said Rothman-Benhaim, “they weren’t allowed to go to the French schools because they were Catholic-based. So they had to go to Protestant schools and they were English based.”

Nowadays, most younger Jews are French/English bilingual. But not the elderly.

They need their bilingual notices in the mill town of Huntingdon too, according to mayor Stéphane Gendron. But he said what the people really need is jobs.

“This whole issue about language is ridiculous because we have a high rate of unemployed people,” said Gendron. “We’re broke. But we’re arguing [about] language.”



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Packing flashcards, Pandas and Polyglotty Olympics

So it’s another edition top five language stories of the past month, with The World’s cartoon queen and podstar Carol Hills.

5. The End of Bo.  As repeat readers and listeners know, I’m on the fence when it comes to recording the death of  languages.  No, it’s not that. It’s really that I can’t come up with a storyline that isn’t just a repeat (in a tediously predictible public radio way) of the last time a language died. You know the drill:  elderly speaker of said language passes on, leaving a the very last speaker without a linguistic buddy. Cue  scratchy audio of aforementioned last speaker reciting a poem or prayer. That’s certainly also the case with Bo. Boa Senior (pictured left) was about 85 when she died earlier this year. You can listen to the scratchy audio of Boa Senior here. The difference though, with Bo is that it’s far, far older than most languages. Some linguists claim it is among the world’s original languages, possibly 70,000 years old. That’s where in this case, the storyline differs. RIP Bo.

4. Canada’s polyglot Olympics. The Vancouver Olympics were broadcast all over the world in hundreds of languages. But even in Canada they were broadcast in more than twenty languages, including Cree and seven other native languages.  (That’s Cree in the picture, rendered in Canadian Aboriginal Syllabic characters). We hear from Cree commentator Abel Charles who must have had occasion to yell Kitahaskwew pitikwataw! (“He shoots! He scores!”) a few times on the way to Canada’s gold medals in both men’s and women’s hockey. Cree is not an economical language: pretty much everything takes longer to say in Cree than in English, so Charles has his work cut out for him.

3. Bilingual Pandas. So two giant pandas that have been on loan to the United States have been returned to China. They were actually born in the U.S. but had to be “returned” to China under an agreement between the two countries.  In the U.S. they learned a few words of English. But what good will that do them in China? More importantly perhaps, will the body language and gestures of their Chinese keepers confuse them? Will they feel comfortable enough in the new — and, species-wise, original — environs to think about mating? Pandas being pandas, maybe not.

2. Two disturbing lawsuits. Americans’ appetite for suing each other sometimes takes my breath away. But– I know —  there can be good reasons for litigation. Consider these linguistic lawsuits: #1: Nicholas George, an American studying Arabic at Pomona College, California has teamed up with the ACLU to sue the Transportation Security Administration over his detention at Philadelphia’s airport. TSA officers grew suspicious when they saw the student’s Arabic flashcards, which included the words bomb and terrorism. The suit contends that the officers asked George whether he was Muslim or “pro-Islamic.” Lawsuit#2: School secretary Ana Ligia Mateo, hired in part because she was bilingual, is suing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina.  A new principal at Mateo’s school had issued an English-only policy that banned Mateo from speaking Spanish, not just with students but with their parents. Mateo refused to comply with the new policy was “effectively terminated.”

1. Wartime translator. The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, is working on that holy grail of handheld translators: a device that can recognize up to 20 languages and  translate them with 98% accuracy. Previous attempts have met with  mixed success. Remember the Phraselator? The new device will have to do better with dialects: Arabic, for example, has a ton of them.  And even though this is military research, its application will be greatly felt in the civilian world.

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Russia’s national lyricist, Canada’s language laws, and the rehabilitation of a code-breaker

MikhalkovThis week, a look back at the career of the late Sergei Mikhalkov, who has died aged 96.  During World War Two, Mikhalkov wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem.  After Stalin died, he rewrote the lyrics, expunging all mention of  Stalin. Decades later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government adopted a new national anthem, but no-one particularly liked it: it just didn’t sound grand and powerful enough.  So in 2000, Vladimir Putin re-installed the old tune  by Alexander Alexandrov and had Mikhalkov re-write the lyrics yet again. This time round, instead of praising Stalin or Lenin, the anthem gave a nod to God. As someone who so readily held his finger to the political winds, it’s no surprise that Mikhalkov took part in smear campaigns against the likes Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Of course that was during Stalin’s rule, which means that not participating in such campaigns could have dire consequences.

Next, a conversation with Keith Spicer on Canada’s 40-year-old language laws.  Spicer was the country’s first enforcer of bilingualism. Being Canadian, there wasn’t much enforcing– more like pusuading, cajoling and endless, endless debating. The way Spicer tells it, Canadians eventually embraced the law, with millions of English Canadians clamoring to learn French. He says that Quebec’s provincial language rules that outlawed signs in English and discouraged English-language expressions in French were silly but understandable, given the historical hostility to French in Anglophone Canada.

turingFinally, this month the British government finally apologized for its treatment of Alan Turing, who helped break the Nazis’ war codes.  When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, the British government stripped him of his security clearance and prosecuted him for gross indecency. Faced with a prison term, Turing agreed as an alternative to hormone treatment. The treatment drove him to suicide in 1954.

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podcast #3: a linguist’s fantasy island and Seinfeldian diplomacy

In this edition of The World in Words, the stories of a couple of people who aimed just a little too high. Linguist Derek Bickerton talks about his lifelong love of creoles and his attempt to create a new language by importing a half-dozen families onto an uninhabited  desert island.  Bickerton’s memoir, Bastard Tongues, is a page-turner, and not just for story of the island experiment he conjured up.  Also in this cast former speechwriter Gregory Levey on how he almost got an Israeli prime minister to quote from a  Seinfeld episode. Listen in iTunes or here.

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