National Post Barbara Kay: Quebec surpasses France in language paranoia

National Post - Tuesday May 21st, 2013

PQ ministerJean-Francois Lisee

Warning: Viewing of the following material is for rational people only. Side effects for those suffering from myopia, dyspepsia, chauvinism and/or membership in the Parti Québécois may include heartburn, nausea, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision or public bombast. Caution is advised.

Last week France’s Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso introduced a bill that would permit French universities to teach more courses in English – that is, courses in subjects that have nothing to do with English language or English literature.

Mme. Fioraso explained that the purpose of the initiative was to attract students from countries where English is widely understood, but where French is taught only in connection with literature. As examples, she cited Brazil, China and India.

As Mme. Fioraso explained in the magazine Nouvel Observateur: “Ten years ago, we were third in welcoming foreign students, but today we are fifth. Why have we lost so much attraction? Because Germany has put in place an English program that has passed us by. We must make up the gap.”

To any rational observer, Mme. Fioraso’s conclusion makes perfect sense. Rational minds remember the days when French was considered the international lingua franca for higher cultural and social pursuits, as well as for political diplomacy and commerce. All educated people learned French at the time, and didn’t complain that their own national language was somehow diminished by having to speak French too.

But turnabout is not fair play to chauvinists. Paris intellectuals got the vapours even thinking about such an outrage. Why should French universities have to accommodate the linguistic convenience of foreign students? Surely the acquisition of French is such a tantalizing privilege that foreign students should be willing to put in the mere extra year or perhaps two or three – whatever – in order to take in French the courses they hope will lead to a career back home in China, Brazil or India, even though they will never use the language again, yes?

Certain politicians were no less ruffled. Jacques Attali, advisor to the late president François Mitterrand, bridled on a blog: “Not only would such a reform be contrary to the Constitution (which provides in its Article 2 ‘the language of the Republic is French’), but you cannot imagine an idea that is stupider, more counterproductive, more dangerous and more contrary to the interest of France.”

Jacques, get a grip! Golly, so much hyperbolic umbrage over a proportionate handful of students just trying to get an education as expediently as possible to prepare them for the real world’s challenges: Why does this sound so familiar? Oh wait, I know. It’s because I live in Quebec, where a day without some PQ minister freaking out over the sight of an apostrophe or the sound of a clerk saying “hello” first instead of “bonjour” is a day without sunshine.

I wish we had a few clones of Mme. Fioraso here in Quebec, which is to say government ministers who are more concerned with national success and prosperity than with nostalgia for the good old days as in France, or historical revisionism as in Quebec, where the current trope concerning English, according to a recent letter sent by PQ Minister for Montreal Jean-François Lisée to Montreal anglos, is its “symbolic nature.”

I don’t know which is more pathetic: a culture mired in past glory, or a culture untethered to historical and current reality. There is no “symbolic nature” to English in Quebec. Unlike France, Quebec’s history has always been a linguistic collaboration and Montreal was always and remains a fully bilingual city. M. Lisée and his colleagues are trying desperately to project their own wistful fantasies of a history in which English wasn’t and isn’t a hard fact of Quebec life. But it won’t wash.

The hard fact is that English is the same language that has been here since Montreal began, the language that was spoken by the people who joined in partnership with francophones to build this once-great city, and whose descendants and English-speaking immigrants continue to contribute their disproportionate share of Quebec’s tax revenues.

Nice try, M. Lisée, but real citizens are not symbols. But once you are in the spirit of letter-writing, why not send a letter of invitation to Mme. Fioraso to visit, so she can share her refreshing views with you and your colleagues? But if she comes, you might be wise to have some smelling salts handy for Mme. Marois and the  other ladies in cabinet.

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