I’m not an expert in French. I don’t think I even knew a word of French until I started kindergarten. And even then, at my Anglophone school, in an Anglophone city, we students were only so involved in developing what was for most of us a second language. We’d do an hour here, an hour there, learning the basic vocabulary that you’d expect of a group of five year olds. And this basic education continued through our elementary years.
By the time my classmates and I reached high school and had the opportunity to choose classes, I was surprised to find that many of them jumped at the chance to give up French for good. Whether it was because they struggled with it or just lacked interest, they had no qualms at closing the door and never looking back.
I was perplexed at their choice. Maybe it was because I just loved the sound of the language or the writers we studied.
But it seems I was, and am now, in the minority. Of the 33 million people who live in Canada, just over 17 per cent speak both official languages. And predictably enough, almost 60 per cent of those bilingual people live in Quebec.
What people seem to very easily forget is that Canada is a bilingual country. After all, the French established a permanent settlement years before the British ever did. Quebec may be the only solely francophone province now, but Canada’s history has a strong sense of connection with all things French.
So how is it that people are so disillusioned? It’s been over 40 years since the Official Languages Act made the two languages equal under the law, but since then, if anything we’ve lost enthusiasm in pursuing our two native tongues. French immersion programs are widespread, but bilingualism is on the decline.
Meanwhile, Quebec is hanging on to its language rights for dear life. A recent criticism of an Italian restaurant menu in Quebec created “pastagate,” a scandal that made the province a global laughingstock. The Office Quebecois de la langue francaise ordering that the restaurant remove the word “pasta” from its menu may seem extreme, but such strict measures are just a demonstration of how strongly the office wants to preserve the linguistic integrity of its province.
It’s true that Canada is a widely multicultural nation, and perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask that newcomers to our country learn both official languages. But for people still in school, those with the chance or even the requirement to study French, it’s time to embrace bilingualism. Being fluent or at least comfortable in Canada’s two languages can open doors with jobs all over the country, or even elsewhere in the francophone world. And if nothing else, it serves the purpose of preserving our national heritage. So embrace it, Canada. And vive la langue francaise.