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Quebec language debates: Where the silly conceals the serious

In the mythology of Quebec's language struggles, no one can ever replace the archetype of the plump unilingual anglophone salesladies of a now defunct department store. The "fat damned English ladies at Eaton's" once denounced by a provincial cabinet minister were long a preferred symbol of anglophone arrogance among the francophone majority.

So, consider it a sign of progress that the newest archetype to join this hall of shame is that of the ever-cheery sales clerk at a downtown Montreal shop who greets every client with an equal-opportunity "Bonjour-Hi." According to the Parti Québécois, this bilingual greeting does not respect the status of French as Quebec's only official language. It's also just plain irritating.

I'm with the PQ on that last one. Who doesn't know what the word "bonjour" means? Besides, the French-speaking cachet of Montreal is supposed to be a big draw for tourists. For many, it is a major buzzkill to be greeted even partially in English when they expected their visit to the world's second-largest francophone metropolis to be bathed in the romance of the French language. Instead, non-French-speaking visitors are often made to speak English whether they want to or not by a sales clerk or waiter who just assumes, by their accent, that their French is not up to snuff.

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Still, there are many local anglophones who consider it their right to be served in English and non-francophone locals and tourists who might feel too intimidated to admit they can't speak French. For some reason, otherwise secure human beings become deer-in-the-headlights shy when confronted by a sales clerk who speaks to them in a foreign language. "Bonjour-Hi" is one of those quintessentially Quebec language compromises that is meant to keep everyone happy. It says: French gets first billing, but just so you know, English is cheerfully offered on demand.

The PQ motion in the National Assembly calling on service-sector workers to greet the public "warmly with the word 'bonjour'" was adopted unanimously after the PQ agreed to remove the part about "Hi" being an "irritant." Silly stuff, really, that sent eyeballs rolling in the trenches, where sales clerks are far too busy these days catering to the whims of Christmas shoppers to play politics. But, que voulez-vous? The PQ is at 19 per cent in the polls and desperate for attention.

A matter worthy of more serious consideration is the report of the provincial Auditor-General released last week on the abysmal state of programs aimed at the linguistic integration of new immigrants. Between 2010 and 2013, only 31 per cent of the 50,000 immigrants who did not know French before their arrival signed up for provincial courses to learn the language. And fewer than 10 per cent of those attained a reasonable degree of proficiency in French.

From the Auditor-General's point of view, this means the courses, as currently constituted, offer poor value for taxpayers. But contrary to the assertions of PQ politicians and some commentators, it hardly proves that immigrants are not integrating into Quebec society.

Between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of immigrants to Quebec in any given year already speak French before they arrive. For those who don't, a course offered through the government is probably the least best way to learn French, as anyone who's tried to learn a language in a classroom setting alone should understand. Besides, most new immigrants are, you know, working, often at two jobs, with irregular hours. They learn just enough French (or English) on the job to function at work and in society. No one should expect them pass la dictée.

That's for their kids to worry about. Since the adoption of Bill 101 in 1977, the children of immigrants must attend public school in French. Successive cohorts of these enfants de la Loi 101 speak and write French as well as any Québécois who can trace her lineage back to Samuel de Champlain.

Just last month, one such enfant, Cathy Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was sworn in as the first female speaker of Montreal's city council. Another, comic actress Mariana Mazza, the daughter of immigrants from Uruguay and Lebanon, stole the show in last summer's biggest movie hits in Quebec, Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 and De père en flic 2.

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It is the children of Bill 101, not their parents, who represent the future of French in Quebec. And that future is much brighter than politicians who feed off the linguistic insecurity of some Québécois will ever admit.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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