The use of French at home is only one indicator of linguistic health: Quebec demographers
Liberal immigration critic Saul Polo urged Legault to recant, saying “the language spoken at home shouldn’t be the prime minister’s business.”
“Go tell the Armenian community, which has been here for five generations, that they fled a genocide; go tell the Lebanese community, which fled the civil wars; the Cambodian community, the Colombian community, who don’t have French as their first language, that we represent a threat to Quebec,” he told the Legislative Assembly.
Legault, meanwhile, said the language spoken at home is an indicator that his government considers, insisting that his government’s sole objective was to ensure that French remains the common language of Quebec.
“If there is no one in Quebec who speaks French at home, it means that French will eventually disappear,” he said at a press conference in Quebec.
Alain Bélanger, professor of demography at the National Institute for Scientific Research, says it is clear that the number of people who speak French at home is decreasing due to the growing number of allophone immigrants, whose mother tongue is not is neither English nor French.
He said that while it’s an indicator of French levels, a much more important measure is whether children of immigrants are integrating in French or English.
“It’s not so bad if allophones, whether Spanish, Arab, Punjabi or Tagalog, continue to use their language at home,” he said. “What is more important is the second generation who must choose between English and French.
Bélanger says that while more immigrants choose French than English — about 60% — that’s not enough to maintain linguistic balance in the province, which could require more than 90%.
He said the result is a general decline in the French language – a very slow but difficult to reverse decline.
“Demography is like an ocean liner, not a canoe,” he said. “It doesn’t turn out in the blink of an eye.”
Calvin Veltman, a retired sociolinguist and demographer who taught at the University of Quebec in Montreal, takes a more optimistic view. While he agrees that French has declined slightly since 2001, he believes the integration of immigrants into French-speaking society has been a “remarkable success.” Much of this success can be attributed to the Bill 101 requirement that immigrant children attend school in French.
He takes issue with the number of people who analyze the linguistic data, saying that they tend to exclude from the French-speaking group allophones who speak French in addition to their mother tongue at home.
He said the oft-cited number of 60% of immigrants who integrate in French includes those who arrived a long time ago and their children. According to his calculations, about 75% of immigrants who have arrived in the province since 2001 have chosen French over English — which is probably the highest possible, according to him.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, 94.5% of the Quebec population was able to carry on a conversation in French. The number of people who spoke French at home was 87.1%, the same as in the previous census, but the survey also revealed that families were increasingly more likely to speak another language as well.
However, projections published in 2017 revealed that the proportion speaking French at home could increase from 82% in 2011 to around 75% in 2036. Meanwhile, English spoken at home could increase from 11% in 2011 to 13% in 2036. .
Veltman and Bélanger noted that official statistics don’t always present a clear picture of what’s going on.
Veltman said there is a large group of people who speak French and English at home who can be difficult to categorize.
“We are becoming a much more bilingual society,” he says. “If it’s dangerous for the French, I don’t know.”
Bélanger, for his part, questions the rate of 94.5% in French. He noted that there was widespread opposition in the Anglophone community to a recent proposal requiring Anglophone college students to take three of their core courses in French – suggesting that the level of bilingualism of many Anglophones is not not very high.
Marc Termote, a retired professor from the University of Montreal, believes that the fundamental problem of language decline will be almost impossible to avoid because French-speaking Quebecers have so few children.
However, he said the process will take centuries, not decades, because of the strong measures in place. He said it’s “unthinkable” for Quebec to become another Louisiana, where French has all but disappeared — a comparison Legault evoked last week.
“I can’t imagine he really thought that in 50 years we’ll be two percent francophone in Quebec,” he said of Legault.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press