Sheila Das is a humanities professor at Vanier College in Montreal who speaks English, French and Italian.
Some Quebec media and politicians have been beating the drum about the threat that English poses to the province. Articles full of nationalist fervour have warned, for example, that English junior colleges, or CEGEPs, are “vectors for anglicization” – a metaphor reminiscent of “vectors of disease,” a phrase with resonance in our pandemic times.
Last month, Premier François Legault said Quebec was primed to become the “new Louisiana” without his controversial language law, known as Bill 96. To drive the point home, in 50 years or so, he said, French would be completely taken over by English and effectively cease to exist. One columnist has terrifyingly claimed that when it comes to preserving French, time is running out.
Bill 96, which recently passed, greatly reduces the use of English in legal and medical services and diminishes learning in English at CEGEPs for all students, except for anglophones with historical rights. The fact that this bill is discriminatory, meaning it goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is readily acknowledged by those who proposed it when they invoked the notwithstanding clause.
But is it necessary? Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, is already doing the job of advancing French in the province. Multiple studies show that public use of French has been slowly on the increase, as anglophone bilingualism has reached 70 per cent. Those are the facts. But frightening narratives easily overshadow the numbers.
It is not English that is on the rise, but the ability to speak English. In other words, the fear is that simply by knowing English, French and French speakers will be replaced. Ah, the language version of the “Great Replacement” theory?
What that implies is that a young Francophone student who goes to an English CEGEP to improve their English somehow will lose their ability to speak French, that they will no longer speak French with their family, their friends or at work. Or, if not that student, then their children. So the community, as such, will die.
But such reasoning flies in the face of history. In Europe, Africa and Asia, multiple languages constantly overlap in one community. While it is true that English is predominant in North America, healthy francophone communities exist across Canada where French is not the majority language, from Acadians, to B.C., to Nunavut – where the number of speakers are on the rise.
Wouldn’t it be absurd to think that French Quebeckers uniquely cannot maintain two or more languages at once in the only province whose sole official language is French?
English does not enter the brain like a language-eating parasite and replace native tongues.
What I think is mistaken here is our outdated understanding of ecosystems. We have long held that the natural world is one of dog-eat-dog competition, though study after study demonstrates how mutual aid better explains many relationships, especially ones involving fungus.
Fun fungal facts: fungal networks under the soil connect roots, so that trees can communicate better, responding to warnings and needs. By contrast, scientist Suzanne Simard describes how she conducted an experiment to see if desired commercial trees would thrive by killing off other species and fungi. What happened? Absent these connections, fir seedlings in this case, all died.
English is a fungus.
English facilitates exchange from different people all over the globe. In our hyper-connected world, English is the lingua franca of business, technology, academe, the international political class and tourism. Like it or not.
And cutting yourself off from it, or your children, or trying to push out the English community so fewer chances of ”exposure” exist, does not protect anyone in a co-operative model. It isolates. It prevents exchange. It blocks opportunities. In short, it is not useful.
So let’s get our metaphors straight. English is not a disease. It’s a fungus. And that’s a good thing, as it helps us thrive. Without it, we can only wonder if Quebec, like the fir tree, will wither in isolation.
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