Veena Dwivedi is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brock University and director of the Dwivedi Brain and Language Lab.
Any anglophone Montrealer will tell you that one of the hardest things to do upon leaving our beloved hometown is first, to learn that there are no kisses on any one’s cheek when saying hello, and second, learning to not switch into French as you speak. I had to stop myself from saying “merci” to the bus driver while living in the U.S. as a graduate student; and it was a couple of years into teaching my classes here at Brock that one of my teaching assistants from South Korea very politely asked me what “comme ҫa” meant. My colleagues here never talk about the “subventions” that they are applying for, whereas my McGill colleagues would regularly talk about grant applications in that way.
Here’s the thing: When two linguistic communities live side-by-side for generations, each community borrows words from the other. A recent social media post made by the Quebec minister responsible for promoting and protecting French, Jean-François Roberge, implies that this natural process leads to language extinction. That is, the supposedly humorous 30-second video features a peregrine falcon, a species that has been at risk of extinction and for which conservation efforts are under way. The French voice-over describes the bird as “super quick en vol” (in flight) and continues to sprinkle sentences with other borrowed English words like “sick,” “chill” and “insane.”
The minister is completely wrong that switching between languages, and/or borrowing words from one language into another kills the language. It doesn’t kill the language; it changes the language. We tend to equate linguistic systems with writing systems – while these are related, these are not identical. Language is learned anew by every generation of babies in their communities and every time a baby learns their language, it’s never quite the same as it was in the previous generation. The biggest linguistic innovators, however, are teenagers. Teenagers need to separate from their parental tribe, and they do so very creatively via language to create their own in-group. Again, this is a perfectly normal developmental milestone in language. It can’t be stopped.
So, the minister’s claim regarding language extinction is scientifically off-base and just plain wrong. How does extinction happen? In the peregrine falcon’s case, population decline has been due to pollutants such as DDT, killing off the bird. Language death works much the same way. A language dies when children stop learning or using the language, and this definitely happens when the speakers die. Unfortunately, Indigenous languages have been lost in Canada due to death, disease and violence.
This is not the case with French in Quebec, where thanks to efforts by successive Quebec and federal governments, approximately 75 per cent of the population speaks French as their mother tongue. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the actual number of French first language speakers has increased – but as a proportion, has decreased by under 3 per cent. More than half of Montrealers speak French as their first language, and French is the first language of more than 90 per cent of the population off the island. This shows the success of spoken French in Quebec.
Written French is another matter.
If the minister wants to improve the quality of French in Quebec, the government should focus on putting resources toward improving literacy. Writing is not natural; it is a learned skill and one that requires practice. Like reading, it is learned in the classroom (unlike learning to speak and understand, which happens at home naturally). More attention also needs to be spent on helping anglophone children improve their writing: any university professor will tell you that we are seeing vast declines in writing skills in formal English. Of course, how to encourage reading is the big question – but unlike trying to prevent languages from changing, it is possible.
Do we have to like language change? No, of course not. Although I’m well aware of the neurocognitive facts regarding language and its use, that doesn’t stop me from turning my nose up every time I hear someone say, “I’ll send you an invite.” (Why can’t they just say invitation?) Moreover, I also don’t like it when another language I’m a speaker of, Hindi, mixes in English words (yup, Hinglish) when perfectly good Hindi words are available.
The sheer number of speakers worldwide will keep that language alive, as will the numbers in Quebec. That doesn’t mean that languages don’t need to be protected (my French is proficient thanks to Bill 101 coming into law when I was a child, and I keep up my Hindi with friends and Bollywood movies). If you don’t use it, you lose it for sure. It’s not the influence of other languages, but rather, the active use of it, that keeps it strong.