Quebec’s minister responsible for promoting and protecting French recently released a public service announcement on television and social media aimed at getting young people to clean up their language. According to Jean-François Roberge, the province’s top language cop, the tongue-in-cheek spot is meant to raise awareness among francophone teens about the dangers of sprinkling their sentences with too many English words.
Mimicking the Hinterland Who’s Who PSAs that have for decades educated both francophones and anglophones on the habits of beavers and other emblematic Canadian animals, the 30-second spot features a peregrine falcon, a once-endangered species that has experienced a comeback after efforts to save it. The spot uses English slang popular with Quebec teens to describe the bird as “sick,” “chill” and “insane.” It ends with a warning: “In Quebec, French is in decline. Let’s reverse the trend.”
The ad attempted, unsuccessfully for its critics, to use humour to address what is for Quebeckers a deadly serious topic. Collective hand-wringing about the future of French in their province has made Quebeckers especially touchy about the creeping influence of English. Franglais – the distinctive patois that mixes French and English words in the same sentence – has nevertheless been a fact of life in French Canada since at least the Conquest. Not everyone has a problem with that. For some, it is simply a reflection of the francophone reality in North America. To others, it is an existential threat.
For a generation of artists that broke onto the cultural scene during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the use of popular Quebec French, known as joual – with its working-class accent, anglicisms and English syntax – was seen as an act of emancipation. The plays of Michel Tremblay spoke to Québécois in their real language, not the classical French of Molière or Racine. A countermovement of French language purists emerged to challenge this trend. But it never gained much traction with the broader Quebec public, which remains hugely loyal to local artists who speak, write and sing their hearts out en joual.
It might seem paradoxical that Quebeckers remain so obsessed with protecting French – to the point that their government prides itself on limiting the rights of non-francophones in the province – while at the same time contributing to its decline by using English words when perfectly good French ones exist. C’est ça qui est ça. It is what it is. Quebeckers’ relationship with their language is, well, complicated.
It is not like Quebec politicians set a very good example. You need only tune into Question Period at the National Assembly, where the most effective zingers typically include some franglais. When Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government recently introduced legislation to reform the province’s health care system, Québec solidaire leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois described the bill as the “wet dream” of a former Liberal health minister known for his heavy-handedness. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois went on to describe the bill as a bureaucratic “power trip” for the government’s hand-chosen “top guns.” Mr. Legault responded by saying the bill showed his government had “guts.”
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois later conceded his choice of words “wasn’t the best.” But the criticism he faced had more to do with the tastelessness of the sexual term he used rather than its English origin. What was most telling about the incident was that, at 32, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is representative of a generation of young Quebeckers for whom it is entirely natural to pepper their speech with English terms. Indeed, it is as if they feel their words pack more of a punch if they include more of the language of Shakespeare.
Or rather Kendrick Lamar. American rap music has had more influence on the language spoken by young Quebeckers than any 16th-century British playwright. And Québécois rap artists are among the most inventive users of franglais, reflecting their reality as members of the most wired generation of Quebeckers ever.
The question is whether young Quebeckers are contributing to the degradation of French or contributing to its modernization and enrichment – and, hence, survival. Or both.
What is indisputable is that young francophone Quebeckers are struggling to master written French. Standardized test scores have plummeted in recent years. The trend began well before the pandemic but has accelerated since then. An increasing proportion of francophone high-school students graduate without the written language skills needed to succeed at university or college. According to a 2022 report commissioned by Quebec’s Ministry for Higher Education, more than half of students entering the province’s junior college system in 2018 said they required French tutoring to pass their courses.
In January, Mr. Roberge created an Action Group on the Future of the French Language aimed at improving the quality of oral and written French in the province. Last month’s ad campaign was part of that effort. But he will need to come up with something a lot more “chill” to bring young Quebeckers on board.