Language Policy without the Emotion

By Hicks, Bruce M. | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Language Policy without the Emotion


Hicks, Bruce M., Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


With the Quebecois winning the September 4 general election, language politics has once again been primed in Quebec and across Canada. The PQ's election platform contained a number of policy initiatives designed to protect the French language. Two were hotly debated during the campaign.

The first was the promise to extend the Charter of the French Language's requirement that French be the language in the workplace for companies with 50 employees or more to smaller companies. The second was the plan to extend the compulsory education in French requirement that now applies to public elementary and secondary schools to Cegeps. Cegeps offer an intermediate level following Grade 11 for students wanting to go on to university and community college-level courses for students who do not.

These two promises were reported outside of Quebec and, through that reporting, became the subject of media punditry. While there was no consensus, as there never is on such matters, the strongest and most frequently expressed opinion was that these measures were unfair to the anglophone and immigrant communities in Quebec. Francophone voices outside Quebec were not raised, but it can be imagined that these communities saw the proposals as necessary restrictions to protect the French language.

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It is noteworthy that in Quebec, the reaction of the anglophone and francophone communities was almost the reverse of that of their "rest-of-Canada" cousins.

While some Anglos in Quebec were upset with the proposals, for the most part Quebecers are used to Bill 101 and expanding work and education language restrictions was not initially seen as either overly onerous or unexpected, particularly by younger Anglos.

In Quebec, the strongest opposition to the PQ language restrictions was voiced by francophone Quebecers and specifically concerned the Cegep requirement. Pundits, academics and community elites repeatedly expressed the view that, having acquired fluency in French but having failed to acquire English as a second language, many francophones (and children of immigrants) avail themselves of English Cegeps to acquire second-language skill in the hope of attending English universities or widening their job prospects.

Of course these attitudes will change--hardening or shifting--as the PQ moves from making promises to enacting legislation. Understandably, language policy is emotional because it is so connected to identity, and when language policy involves education the emotionality increases as parents express fear for their children and their children's futures.

What I seek to do here is to put language policy in a nonemotional context, placing it in a global context and within a useful typology. Ultimately the policies favoured by citizens of Quebec will reflect their personal experiences and attitudes, but context can advance understanding of alternative positions and thus further public discourse.

Global context

The dominance of certain languages is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of hegemonic powers. As Shelton Gunaratne has noted, "Languages have moved up and down the centre-periphery of the world system depending on the power fortunes of their speech communities." (1) What languages disappear, expand or dominate is tied to a number of interdependent social factors: conquest, migration, colonization, proselytization, traffic, trade and official language planning. (2)

In contrast to many aspects of identity, the state is central to language politics. While the state might be able to remain neutral and separate from things like religion, it cannot claim to be impartial when it comes to language. After all, the central medium of political life is speech. (3) So simply by using a language in exercising its authority, the state is undertaking a form of official language planning.

More formal official language planning is usually done for one of two reasons. …

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