In the last post I undertook to explain why language is such a big deal in Quebec, and how it lies at the heart of the separatist debate.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: language matters. Without shared language, it’s hard to carry out the most basic of human interactions. This much you know if you’ve ever visited a country where you don’t know the language.
The second, somewhat more subtle point is that language is hard. On one level this is obvious, too. But what you don’t realise as a monolingual is that it remains hard, even once you have a working grasp. We effectively take a decades-long intensive course in our native language, without ever giving it much thought. It’s very hard to match that investment later in life. In fact to some degree it’s impossible, because our receptivity to new languages greatly diminishes after childhood. (Using a language learnt in adulthood actually recruits different parts of the brain relative to languages learnt as a child.)
Consequently, operating in a second language is a challenge. Otherwise-trivial tasks cost mental effort. You make mistakes, kick yourself for forgetting a word, misunderstand and are misunderstood. You feel like your IQ has dropped. That’s the dynamic, modulated and amplified by thousands of individual experiences, that you have to imagine in thinking about the sociological import when a group of people raised on one language face economic and social pressures to operate in a different language.
Concretely, I think this ‘pain factor’ was a major impetus back in the ’70s, when the language laws were born in Quebec. Many of the province’s Francophone inhabitants had grown up in rural regions, with the outdated educational system of the Duplessis era, and had probably had little opportunity to learn English even if they’d wanted to. The stranglehold of English on commerce had a real and immediate effect on many people, indeed it hit them in the hit-pocket, and bombarded them every day on the streets of Montreal. The desire for change was understandable.
I think the ‘pain factor’ has diminished in the decades since, though by no means disappeared. Education has improved, and many native-born Francophones grow up proficient in English. In any case, a stalemate appears to have been reached; the tacit reality is that English is still a requirement on the higher rungs of the economic ladder. Successive governments have found it easier to impose Francisation on dépanneurs and Chinese restaurants than on multinational corporations. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, given that Quebec’s economic ties are predominantly with the US and Anglophone Canada. You can order your pâtes chinoises in French, but if you’re on a conference call with your bosses in New York you’d better be speaking English.
I get the impression that another aspect of language, the ‘culture factor,’ has gained prominence in the political debate. Culture is intimately tied to language, and language to culture. We speak of ‘the language of Shakespeare’ and ‘la langue de Molière.’ Language is also connected to identity, both at a societal and individual level. When personality tests are administered to children of first-generation immigrants, who’ve grown up speaking one language inside their household and another language out in the world, they actually exhibit different personalities depending on which language the test is administered in. Language is seemingly able to flip a switch controlling who we perceive ourselves to be.
One conclusion, then, is that any threat to the French language in Quebec is a threat to French-Canadian culture itself, and many supporters of separatism and monolingualism have reached it. When you follow the debate here for a while, you notice something strikingly like a siege mentality: people talk of an ‘island’ of French culture slowly crumbling into the relentless ‘sea’ of Anglophone Americana. And they might be right. There’s immense pride here amongst ‘the kids’ in their Québecois identity, as witnessed every year on la Fête de St-Jean (uncannily similar, for me, to the annual nationalist outpouring that is Australia Day). But it’s readily matched by their love of US pop culture in all its forms. Protecting a language against natural demographic erosion is no easy task, and may well require desperate measures. For that reason I’m probably more sympathetic on general principles to language laws than many other Anglophones, even if they sit uneasily with notions of individual freedom (and even if they occasionally get ridiculous).
Hopefully I’ve managed to articulate why language is such a heated subject in Quebec. In the next post I’ll pick up the historical narrative, and try to figure out what was going on with all those accords.