French, a Language in Exile

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French, a Language in Exile
Inroads Journal 7, 1998

Inroads 7, 1998 French, a Language in Exile by Fernand Dumont - "Le français, une langue en exil ", Raisons communes (Montreal : Boréal 1995) ; translated by John Richards. (

Fernand Dumont, sociologist, philosopher, essayist, writer and poet

Making French the language of daily use in North America presents a paradox; one cannot sustain the use of French based simply on its being a "habit" that has survived for several centuries. To do so requires more solid reasons that make sense in terms of social life.

Individuals and societies express themselves using all sorts of signs and symbols spread through daily life and bound up with the most ordinary behaviour. Language is the mobilization of these signs and symbols. It brings them to consciousness. It is not the record, more or less accurate, of what would have taken form without it; it represents the ability to assemble, the creative potential of the individual and of culture. It is an obvious reality to which a group can refer in order to be conscious of itself. There exist other factors of identity; a territory, customs, political power. All these elements suppose, for a collectively, an exercise in interpreting its condition which affords to language an exceptional status, simultaneously as means for this interpretation and as a guarantee that this interpretation comes from the group itself. Language bears witness to the power of the human imagination and of human signs in social change; to be committed to the defence and promotion of language is not an idealistic diversion. It is not surprising that the matter of language has assumed so much importance in the transformation of contemporary Quebec society.

A language within four walls

The context within which the problem is posed has profoundly changed. Before, for a large fraction of the population, French was a spontaneous part of their intimate being, and they were no more likely to question linguistic survival than to question the legitimacy of their own existence. Now, migration from country to city and other forms of mobility, and the search for social advancement, have rendered the value of French problematic for an ever growing number of francophones. Our former elites elaborated a rationalization for moments of doubt: the French language as guardian of the faith, the nobility and richness of l’esprit français compared to the pragmatism of the competing language. Who could now seriously take up such arguments, at the end of the century and after the social changes we have undergone? Reread, for example, the famous speech of (Henri) Bourassa at Notre-Dame: one will be moved by a beautiful historical memory, but the demonstration will appear, for today, irrelevant. The question must be posed anew.

Does the question have the same importance as before? Among the apparently more concrete problems which assail us — and despite the language conflicts in recent years — for many of our citizens the question appears somewhat secondary. We know the Ottawa perspective: French is defined as a specific characteristic of individuals; we have the right to speak French if that pleases us and the right to understand, in this idiom, important public sector communications. Moreover, I recently heard an advocate of sovereignty state roughly the following in a speech: "We have chewed over this old language problem sufficiently. So many challenges exist; let us assume our independence and we shall finally be able to talk about something else." I also know people irritated by these discussions of the French language; they detect the stench of old conservative nationalism.

In distinction to the above, I want to emphasize the extent to which the future of our language is at the heart of the obstacles and opportunities of our society. Let me state my thesis simply: not only is the fate of French linked to the process of proletarization of our collectively; in a way, the fate of French defines proletarization.

A French Canadian concerned about his identity leaves the table indignant if, in a restaurant, he is not served in French. At an airport he takes the time to find the counter where someone can talk to him in his language. In a hotel, he indulges in spectacular rages in order to be served by the employee on duty who knows his mother tongue. In his workplace, he insists that the text of his collective agreement be bilingual at least. In government and business offices, he asks for forms drafted in French; to get them he engages in painful exchanges of letters which are sometimes reproduced in the newspapers.

When one thinks about it, the French Canadian concerned about his identity is a strange person. In most countries of the world, one combines words and actions; if one sometimes makes use of dictionaries and manuals of grammar, it is in order to grasp the world more precisely. Here, by contrast, everything takes place as if language was distancing us from what we are doing. A parlant français (an ineffable expression which is spreading) eats, travels and works as do people elsewhere; but, in addition, with a kind of specialized consciousness, he must constantly remember that he speaks a particular language that is threatened. He must withdraw from the world, set himself aside in order to defend the way in which he will say what he wants to express.

Everyone uses language to describe his or her intimate thoughts, to express the meaning of relationships within families or between friends, and to give form to social acts. These are three ways to define oneself using language. The first is not more profonde than the last — contrary to the prejudices of politicians who make of language one legal right among others. Being French in my intimate personal life, I have the right to forms drafted in French and to bilingual menus in my official life. If the collective use of language is reflected only in a private right, what will become of my identity?

It is easy to answer this question, without recourse to vague speculation. In some circumstances — among Franco-Americans or in Canadian provinces other than Quebec — the French language has failed, in characteristic stages, to fulfill the three functions of language distinguished above. First, French begins to disappear from social use: from business, from work and from politics. It is preserved in separate schools. But school prepares children for public life; as a refuge for a minority, doesn’t the separate schools become a means of segregation for the young? The family, friends, folkloric activities are a surer shelter; one speaks French at home, in gatherings on Saturday evenings, at meetings of cultural associations. In its turn, this limited social space will fail; one will forbid children to speak English at home, but one will lead a busy social life with friends beyond the ethnic clubs. Finally, one will live in French only when alone with oneself. I am not inventing anything; several years ago, I observed among Franco-Americans precisely this agony of the language in their most intimate circles.

In certain regions and sectors of activity, one can place Quebecers in this process, a process which has already reduced the role of French elsewhere to the status of a dead language because society made language an individual concern, a choice and a right kept apart from other rights. For many years, our language has been "folklorized". By failing to use it spontaneously in many sectors of social life, it risks becoming a pleasant individual characteristic accompanied with legislation. Joual will not solve the problem. It works in the context of personal relations and literature, but it will be never be the language of technology, the economy, or formal organizations. By using joual, we would only feel at ease if we consecrate our condition as marginal players in society.

Ever since the Conquest, it has been necessary to battle for the survival of our language; things will not be different in the future. To convince oneself of this there is no need for a lengthy demonstration; one has only to think of the number of people on this continent who speak French. Thanks to the annual statistics — which always provoke the same desolation — we know what to expect from the federal policy on official languages. The battles and the long-run disillusionment have created an understandable state of mind: a defensive attitude. Bill 101 proposed to reverse the strategy. Without doubt it created protective mechanisms, but by insisting on the presence of French in the world of work, it made our language into an offensive instrument right at the heart of economic life. Bill 101 has been hacked at by legal authorities due to the inertia and even the instigation of certain of our politicians. The result has been to concentrate public attention on the question of commercial signs. This is precarious terrain where citizens are required to act as police; it requires an odious mobilization of the majority where we are kept in constant suspense. We are drawn back into old campaigns of the Ligue des droits du français, chasing labels and flyers.

Where it is publicly present in our cities or in advertisements, French is too often a façade. How can one be surprised that students are not motivated to learn a language which plays such a pitiful official role in Quebec society? How can one be surprised that non-francophone minorities and immigrants fail to integrate with a French minority that is cornered into a defensive position? How can one criticize them for showing no great enthusiasm for sharing our fate? In 1986, two allophones transferred their linguistic loyalty to English for every one transferring to French. Charles Castonguay concluded an analysis of the 1991 census as follows:

At most, Bills 22 and 101 have prevented English from progressing among immigrants who arrive as adults as it has progressed among allophones born in Quebec. In the 1970s, the relative position of francophones in Quebec increased due to the emigration of anglophones to other provinces. This francisation by default slowed down during the first half of the 1980s, and has come to an end since 1986. As a consequence, the linguistic orientation of allophones reemerges more than ever as a decisive factor in maintaining the French character of Quebec.

The problem is not simply the survival or disappearance of the cultures of allophones. In all societies around the world there exist and should exist diverse cultures. That is obvious, and our people have affirmed it since the Conquest. This is true not only for ethnic groups. The same applies to social classes and to regions. No society, no culture is monolithic; and when it tries to be so, it withers or it is monolithic due to totalitarian measures. Cultural diversity requires respect and dialogue, the opposite of being sealed in self-contained cultures. But how can this diversity be realized without a culture, a language of convergence [langue de convergence]? In every country of the world, including the United States, there is a culture and a mediating language. The question is, what will they be in Quebec. This is not a matter of nationalistic bias ; it is a fundamental question concerning the health of communal life in society.

Hypothetically, let’s imagine a perfectly multicultural collectively. In private and in public, everyone would speak his mother tongue. Since language is the expression of daily life, it would need a system of social support: an educational network, a network of social services, etc. Pursuing this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, one would wind up with the coexistence of societies, graced with elites and a parliament of ethnicities. Such a monstrous construction of a society would lead to a banal social life, a powder keg of conflicts, and segregation of citizens. And what good would it do to crown all this with a language of communication reduced to an instrument of translation?

If we want to avoid that fate for French in Quebec, we do so not only to defend a language which has been impoverished by its exile, but because we don’t accept a future society in which cultures will be separated by barriers or reduced to folklore. We want to live in a world where the contribution of cultural diversity enriches a common culture without being lost in it. To achieve that, a language of convergence is indispensable. For two centuries those who preceded us believed it would be French. If we decide to maintain continuity, we must bring our language back from its exile and make of it more than an exterior aspect of Quebec society. If we don’t, the language of convergence will be English.

Language, economy, work

Is it necessary to remind ourselves what was for a long time the situation of francophones in the economy? We were already analyzing it in the 19th century. Explanations have not been lacking, some of them proffered by our English neighbours: profound inaptitude for business, lack of initiative, otherworldly religious conceptions, a humanist education which abstracts from the real world... Finally, we are beginning to realize that all these phenomena, presented as causes, were just as much consequences. For centuries we weren’t connected, as a collectively, to the central institutions of the economy. Our inadequacy derived from a communications rupture as it touched markets, finance, employment and access to francophone experts. Given this deficiency, francophones took on adaptive attitudes; they produced professionnels able to find employment, prestige and alibis.

I agree with the thesis put forward by Jean-Luc Migué, a Quebec economist. I here sketch it in broad outline. Migué starts with the idea of a "public good", an idea familiar to economists. Information is one such public good, one that is particularly important in contemporary economies. The factors of production (capital, labour, technology, decision-making centres) as well as the distribution of goods and services rely on networks of information. These networks entail costs and generate benefits. Quebec is a network in this sense. Now, not so long ago, Quebec was cut off from the largest networks. This is not because finance came from abroad; all of Canada depended on foreign investment. The deficiency was inherent in the Quebec network itself, in the two subgroups which had formed inside Quebec society. For the English-speaking subgroup, its principal activity lay in its control of large amounts of information; anglophones occupied the principal positions in the foreign-owned firms set up in Quebec. The other subgroup, the francophones, usually worked in those parts of the Quebec network suffering a poverty of information. The enthusiasm of certain francophones for public enterprise betrayed a more or less conscious wish to get the maximum out of their restricted network.

In describing this situation, I used the past tense. But it is far from being radically modified. Given this state of affairs, what choice was there? What choice still remains? If he has the financial and other resources, the francophone integrates into the larger network. In our history, some business men have succeeded; others are succeeding today. But are they succeeding, all the while leaving the majority of the francophone population closed off in its restricted network?

There is another possibility: link our network into a larger collectively. The solution is collective. It requires that anglophone Canadians abandon their monopoly on communication, that organizations and competencies become largely francophone, especially in multinational firms. Migué states it thus:

The systematic bilingualization of Anglo-Canadian business leaders would in no way resolve the question of the French language in Quebec. So long as the arrival of business in Quebec society is realized principally by Anglo-Canadians, so long as business is not geographically located in Quebec, the language of work and more generally the valuable language to know will not be French. The majority of the francophone population will be confined to a kind of folkloric isolation.

I am not so naive as to believe we shall have abolished "exploitation of man by man" when our collectively reestablishes its power of communication with the large economic networks. It would be absurd to reduce the question of social class to the difficulties of our language or to the control of economically relevant information by anglophone intermediaries. That said, we must not jump over this dynamic, claiming to speak in terms of a universal proletariat. For, if speaking French isn’t sufficient to eliminate social class, if there can readily be a francophone bourgeoisie as exploitative as any other, it remains true that equity concerns the ability to speak. Isn’t the poverty of language as serious an injustice as poverty defined in terms of material goods?

No, language is not in Quebec an individual problem. It is not just a matter of a right to be served in French at Eaton’s or Air Canada, to have a collective bargaining agreement translated or to have a bilingual boss. Nor is it a simple question of honour, although a little more backbone would do us Quebecers no harm. Our task is not to defend our language as one might defend some privilege within a fortified enclosure; that would be the most efficient means of suffocating it, and us with it. From being the first symbol of our servitude, French must become the means of our collective liberation.

Such an affirmation is far from achieving unanimity. In 1991 a meeting took place between the Table de Concertation Économique de Montréal and the permanent ministerial committee with responsibility for government strategy dealing with the metropolitan region. Le Devoir (June 20, 1991) reported the proposals of Daniel Johnson, President of the Treasury Board, later Premier of Quebec [and until recently Leader of the Official Opposition]. "In a tone of irritated fatigue", according to the journalist, Daniel Johnson posed the question, "How can you talk of an international city when Montreal is part of a society which continues to erect obstacles to good international relations?" That was what he said in substance, referring to Bills 101 and 178. Marcel Côté, author of a report commissioned by the ministerial committee, added: "There is no doubt that our nationalist politics, including the policy of francisation, is in conflict with the economic expansion of Montreal. Our linguistic barriers have shrunk our economic space."

But, at root, is it not a matter of conflict between social classes? Mario Polèse recognizes that the increasing control by francophone businessmen over the Montreal economy has served as an incentive for major English-speaking businesses to move their headquarters away. Polèse also insists on the importance of communication in economic activity. He doesn’t limit his discussion to an ability to speak the language of the customer or of the partner, in other words to the value of bilingualism; he discusses what he describes as "a certain cultural affinity." It is this which gives to language, and hence to culture, their economic signifiance and makes language something infinitely more decisive than a war of signs. Mario Polèse underscores the idea:

"emotional motivations push English-speaking businesses to shift their head offices to Toronto. As counterpoint, emotional motivations assure that French-speaking firms will keep their head offices in Montreal... If the geographic mobility of the anglophone elite is in part the explanation for the economic decline of Montreal, the geographic mobility of the new francophone elite is at the origin of its renaissance."

Laws alone cannot end the exile of French ; they must be accompanied by fundamental transformations in the relations of power. Culture is no more a pretty decorative flourish to societies than tastes and preferences are marginal to the economy.

We must start with this large context of the economy in order to evaluate the place of French in the world of work, if we want to get beyond superficial analysis. Bill 101 fortunately gave a high priority to francisation of business. It was time to break with a tradition where a foreman was reduced to the role of translator, where an employee had to leave this French identity in the cloakroom upon entering a factory or an office. Where have we got to? It is not surprising that in the Montreal region 56 percent of people work generally in French while 88 percent do so elsewhere in the province. It is more noteworthy that the use of French is linked to two factors: the extent of communication required in the work, and the position in the organizational hierarchy. "The more that activities require communication, the less predominant is French," reveals a study for the Conseil de la langue française; "36 percent of professionals work generally in French, while this percentage is 66 among workers. In summary, the more French is used, the less the work requires words...

Language and knowledge

If the French language has a precarious status in the world of work when it comes to occupations linked to information, linked in effect to knowledge, one can better judge its future by inquiring into its role in scientific communication. This is an extreme aspect of our problem, a limiting situation which can shed light on other aspects.

I restrict myself to the human sciences; the problem does not present itself there in the same way as in the natural sciences. For example, if physics journals are published in English in non-English-speaking countries, I know of nothing comparable in the human sciences; major journals continue to be edited in French and to have an international audience. Is that enough to reassure us?

Permit me to use a personal incident. I arrived in Paris in the 1950s to undertake studies. While participating in doctoral seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, I attended lower level courses in psychology. The laboratory manual recommended to us was an enormous American work garnished with a copious bibliography. The translation into French was perfect. In flipping through it, I rapidly realized that, with the exception of one article on sleep by Piéron — dated 1913 — all references were to works in English. How could I avoid having the sense, at the beginning of my apprenticeship, that experimental psychology was above all the work of Americans, that I would have done better to go directly to the source ? This first impression fortunately dissipated, as did the well-entrenched certainty among many of my Quebec colleagues who had studied in the United States, that economics, anthropology, or sociology were only really up to date among our American neighbours. I found, later, the echo of this impression with my children on whom, for certain subjects at the college level and above, English-language texts ere imposed on the pretext, they were told, that nothing comparable existed in French. Thus, the first take on the problem: for many francophones the conviction is growing that science is American. Second take, which follows naturally: for many Americans (the example of my psychology text is an illustration) science is something done by them.

The situation of French in the scientific world is not a question of communication in the narrow sense, that is to say the ability or inability to speak French at an international conference. That English is useful as a vehicle, nobody can deny. But a language is not simply a means to deliver messages; quite obviously, for the human sciences, language is tied tightly to a cultural context. These sciences keep the imprint of the societies in which they emerge. Writers and schools form networks and links tied to particular cultures. There are such things as scientific ideologies, that is preconceptions of phenomena and ways of approaching them that are nourished by the ideas of particular milieux. There are also scientific traditions. Compare, for example, two economics textbooks widely used in francophone countries: Samuelson, translated very early into our language and the text recommended to us in my early university studies; and Raymond Barre, a text with a justifiable reputation. The price theory or the manner of calculating national income is obviously identical in the two, but they are situated in different contexts: Barre’s treatise begins with a long sketch of economic history, and accords great importance to institutions; all of which is ignored in Samuelson. The two treatises are altogether modern; however, the pedagogical and cultural traditions which inspire them are divergent.

Finally, in the human sciences, we borrow material from specific cultures; often the material privileged is that which the author takes from his own cultural roots — to such an extent that even the connotation of basic ideas is affected. The same holds for concepts; they carry the effects of transposition. State, nation, class, region, peasant, family, etc.: these basic ideas are not exactly transferable from one society to another; they remain marked [signé] by their original reference. To continue, these require more than translation; one must universalize the cultural reference which supports them.

Even the mechanisms of thought are thrown into question. I recall a distinction which, in our disciplines, is crucial. There is thinking by generalization: the agent of knowledge is stripped of his actual roots and is henceforth defined solely by his operations; he becomes what Piaget calls a sujet épistémique. On the other hand, there is thinking by universalization: the agent of knowledge remains a unique being, united with an actual place. He is not however closed in his uniqueness; he leaves it, and gains access to the universal, only by dialogue with other subjects different from him. If we do understand ourselves over and above the diversity of our cultures, it is thanks to this diversity, not in spite of it. The psychologist, the ethnologist, the sociologist, the historian cannot ignore this movement of universalization and jump to the level of generalization without caricaturing the essence of their undertaking, without making the epistemological problems which compose the originality of their knowledge. This is precisely what the use of a particular language does, when it sets itself up, at least in practice, as the indispensable condition for universalization.

Here, if I am not mistaken, is the core of the problem. The core is not concerned solely with the envelope of knowledge, but its nourishing elements. In effect, knowledge is submitted not only to narrow criteria of logic or methodology; it is part of a continuity with the subject which transmutes culture into knowledge.

Starting from there, we must mark out the other version of the question: to what extent is science an instrument for promotion of a particular culture? Imperialism is not limited to exporting cultural products to less favoured countries. By means of films or television programs, it propagates models and ideals of behaviour: it devalues and disintegrates the identities of these less favoured societies. In a sense, the same is true for the human sciences; one exports not raw data, but problems [problématiques]. There is a market in scientific problems in which language enters as symbol and constraint. Like all other markets, this market is susceptible to monopolistic tendencies. It can happen that scientific practice ceases to be fed by the culture in which it is exercised. At this point, that which first appeared as an epistemological problem in science becomes a responsibility deriving from the ethic of the researcher: what is the future of a culture in which one of the noblest activities is only undertaken, on principle, in a foreign language?

In most cases, management of the relationship between indigenous and foreign language takes more complex and subtle forms. The results are similar. Important communications or articles conducted in the foreign language are a mark of eminence: minor communications or articles are kept for indigenous language meetings, associations and journals. Thus, by the intermediary of language, a hierarchy is established both of knowledge and of cultures. The point is of utmost importance: preserving the plurality of scientific languages in the future is not a secondary problem, and it concerns not only the fate of French. Nor can this be reduced to an inflation of nationalist ideologies. It poses a challenge for the future of scientific thought itself and for the membership in a culture of those who undertake scientific work.

What’s to be done? It is regrettable that at the end of a century in which knowledge has made prodigious advances, scientists do not consider it normal to have a knowledge of three or four languages. It is surprising that, at an international conference, participants cannot understand the other’s language while speaking in their own language. This marks a deficiency in the training of young scientists and suggests, in my opinion, despite inflation in the number of conferences and of learned publications, a debasement among those who claim to be learned [dégradation de la Cité savante]. We are far removed from battles over the predominance of one language over another: we are talking about restoring pluralism and dialogue. Working toward such an ideal presupposes that the scientific community become more conscious of the dilemma. And this dilemma should concern us in the francophonie, isolated and picked off one by one, the diverse countries laying claim to French as their language and culture will decline little by little moving the world towards the end point that I indicated above; the juxtaposition of a universal knowledge, for which English will no doubt be the vehicle, and a knowledge less valued and more particular, expressed in our language...

A language in exile? We must repatriate it. Partial solutions do not suffice: it requires full public awareness, a mobilization of raisons communes. We need more than defence mechanisms: we need to recognize that French is not a burdensome heritage to carry, but the prime instrument for the development of the economy, of culture, and of teaching in Quebec. If it is true that language cannot primarily be analyzed in forms or its specific domain within the education system, then all attempts at reform that treat it in isolation are condemned to deal with symptoms.

The history of our people demonstrates that, first, we must return to our collectivity its grasp on the world. This is the work of culture, of course, work begun magnificently in Quebec literature, in its poetry in particular. This is also the work of politics which, on all grounds, from the smallest decision-making centre to the achievement of sovereignty, must give people here their capacity to construct their existence. Mankind cannot talk coherently and firmly about a universe that they control by no other means than words. We doubt our language when we are not at home...