The Decline of the French: Cliches to Beat About Immigrants and the French

Article after article, analysis after analysis, the idea of ​​French regression is based on what happens in the domestic sphere. However, no action plan to reverse the decline of the French language can take into account only the mother tongue or the language spoken at home, as sociologist Jean-Pierre Corbeil asserts: “We have to break out of this paradigm and stop focusing on French in the family space.” .»

He invited professors, sociologists, statisticians and politicians, including Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, Christine Fréchette, and former deputy Thomas Mulcaire to discuss them on Tuesday, in Montreal, at the 90thH Akfas Conference.

As Quebec prepares to announce some reforms to its immigration programs in the coming weeks to put French more at the center of its selection criteria, it invites us to broaden our horizons and move past some of the clichés about this delicate question.

Linguistic diversity has greatly increased, and a large proportion of immigrants speak several languages ​​at home.

“If we adopt the perspective we have always adopted, there is a good chance that any further action will be a shot in the dark,” warns this former head of the language statistics program at Statistics Canada today, who is now a professor at Laval University.

It is undeniable that the French are regressing in the media space and the ruling party at the present time in a private space between four walls. It is not that “the state has nothing to do in the bedrooms of the nation,” as Pierre Elliott Trudeau put it on a very different topic, but that to find the right levers one must “see more” and highlight the blind spots in these indicators used for more than fifty years, says Mr. Corbell.

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A person who does not speak French as their native language can still use it in public, especially in a work context or in their social world for example. But this segment of the population is not taken into account in the analyses. Many people—including the government—consider that French will never be the general language until all Quebecers “for the most part” speak French at home, according to the designations Statistics Canada used in the census. Even the use of French, on par with another language or as a second language, is not sufficient to be considered francophone in the eyes of the current authorities, the researcher specifies.

“We must always stop using the same approach, as if we were going to solve these questions by limiting ourselves to the same reactions,” he asserts. Above all, there is no “magic wand” to “reverse the decline of the French language once and for all,” a formula that has become almost a political slogan, the professor believes.

A few cliches to overcome or myths to debunk

Immigrants know how to speak French less and less (Chart 1).

Since the implementation of the French Language Pact, immigrants have increasingly reported being able to carry on a conversation in French: this ability has increased by about 30 percentage points since 1971. It reached 80.5% in 2021, or 4 out of 5 immigrants.

However, this ability declined slightly among new immigrants compared to the total, who became permanent residents in the five years leading up to the 2021 census.

And here Jean-Pierre Corbel suggests that there may be an influence of economic growth, not of “choice” or of the mother tongue. “Is it an effect that stems from the strong growth in Quebec’s trade with the rest of Canada, with the United States and the rest of the world? There is no research on that.”

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Regarding the use of English at work, he also noted that three-quarters of young graduates who work mainly in English come from CEGEPs and French-language universities. The French-speaking population has already seen an increase in the use of English at work, according to data from the latest census. In contrast to immigrants, whose use of the French language increased in the same context, between 2006 and 2021.

Immigrants do not use French in public (Chart 2).

There are two camps: those who are convinced that it is absolutely necessary for people to speak French at home so that they can use it in public; But other people, myself included, think it’s a two-way relationship. It is often the use of languages ​​in the public space that will gradually penetrate the family space,” Mr. Corbel patiently explains.

The use of French is not a zero-sum game: it is added to and combined with English and other spoken languages. The new reality is multilingualism, as other researchers in his “camp” explain. Thus, in this diagram, the different possible uses are added to provide a “more accurate picture”: “The relationship with the French language is complex and varied. We must note these dynamics.”

Immigrants tend to adopt English rather than French (Chart 3).

This graph shows that immigrants are adopting French as their first official language. This curve also grows and intersects with the decline of the English language. Mr. Corbeil holds the application of the French language charter responsible for this trend. While half of immigrants speak more than one language at home, today 90% of immigrants attend school in French. So there is a real contribution of allophones to the francophone world.

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This longtime observer isn’t opposed to the new legislation, but believes “orders and prohibitions” won’t solve everything. We should also talk about the responsibility of the host community: “Many immigrants see that despite all the efforts they will make to integrate into French-speaking Quebec society, they will never be considered Francophone, because they are multilingual, because they are dialectal, because they are not ‘native’,” he says. .

Mr. Corbeil does not wear rose-colored glasses, but he does paint an all-black French picture, especially among immigrants. He says: “It makes me smile when I’m in the ‘carefree’ camp, because on the contrary it ‘cares’ about linguistic dynamics for more than 25 years. But we have to have a discussion other than saying that everything is going well.”

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