What is the real force of attraction of French in Quebec? A critical analysis of the improvement of the situation of French observed in 2001

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What is the real force of attraction of French in Quebec?
December 10, 2003

This is an unofficial translation of an article by Charles Castonguay originally entitled "Quelle est la force d'attraction réelle du français au Québec? Analyse critique de l'amélioration de la situation du français observée en 2001" published in Le Devoir on December 10, 2003

Without the change in the composition of immigration, the vitality of French would have shown an extremely modest improvement.

The full version of this new study is to be found in L'Annuaire du Québec 2004, a yearbook which draws up an assessment of Quebec in the social, economic, political and cultural fields and is available in bookshops as of today.

At first glance, the 2001 census indicates an unexpected improvement of the situation of French in Quebec. The increase of the French-speaking population on the island of Montreal, in particular, differs to such an extent from the demographic forecasts that a meticulous examination of the data becomes essential. Is the progress made visible by Statistics Canada real or the result of the changes made to the questionnaire used for the survey conducted by the federal agency every five years?

To properly evaluate the trends at work, it is necessary to follow the evolution of the data before and after the two modifications, in 1991 and 2001, of the census questionnaire. These modifications can compromise the comparability of the data from one survey to the next.

Moreover, what should be more important to judge the evolution of the situation of French is the comparative vitality of languages or, as we could say, their respective force of attraction. For example, a rise of the number of French-speaking people on the island of Montreal is not in itself an indication of the vitality of French if this rise is ascribable to the settlement in the metropolis of French-speaking suburbanites who are just returning to the city.

The vitality of languages

The intrinsic vitality of a language to the contact with other languages is measured by the linguistic persistence of its native speakers and by its force of attraction toward the speakers of other languages. In the private space, it is possible to evaluate the vitality of French by comparing the French-as-mother-tongue population with the French-as-language-of-use population. Insofar as the keeping or the adoption of French as usual language in the privacy of home reflects its prestige and its usefulness in the workplace and at the local market, this comparison also indirectly informs us about its vitality in the public space. It is the same for English and the other languages.

From 1971 to 1986, French showed a rather poor vitality. With the introduction, in 1991, of a reorganized questionnaire, it suddenly became appreciable: a net gain of 66,145 new speakers of French at home, a number in obvious rupture of comparability with the former series. The additional gain of 22,499 recruits between 1991 and 1996, recorded with a module of linguistic questions that had not changed at all, makes it possible to estimate that the sudden vitality recorded in 1991 resulted for a good part from the recasting of the questionnaire.

The interpretation of the subsequent progress, between 1996 and 2001, of 27,718 new speakers of French as usual language is a problem for a similar reason. What share of this accelerated growth emanates from a real rise of the vitality of French and what share is explained by the modifications made to the 2001 questionnaire? The incidence of these last modifications, in particular the new priority given to "French" over "English" in the wording of the linguistic questions, is not negligible.

We can deepen the appreciation of the vitality of French by examining the linguistic persistence of French-speaking people and the relative attraction of French in comparison to English toward allophones [speakers of languages other than French or English]. From there the importance of analyzing "linguistic transfers" - which sociolinguists more precisely describe as "language shifts" - in the mandate, unaccomplished on this point, of the Larose commission.

The trend of the shifts

Before the questionnaire was altered in 1991, the number of net shifts from French to English (the number of French-speaking people, mother tongue, who declared English as language of use minus the number of English speakers likewise francized) was substantial and even increased from 1971 to 1986. Thereafter, the comparability was broken: the questionnaire of 1991 reduced these shifts to almost nothing.

In addition, the questionnaire of 1991 produced an improbable increase of the net shifts among the allophone population, of which an about equal number of additional shifts toward French (42,267) and English (43,780), which made its relative rate of francization jump by 9.9 percent. The subsequent progression of four percent between 1991 and 1996, recorded with an unchanged questionnaire, shows that more than half of the sudden increase between 1986 and 1991 was ascribable to the change in the instrument of observation, in other words that it was artificial.

The modified questions of 2001 caused a new jump of 5.9 percent for the rate of relative francization. In light of the values obtained for the 1991-1996 period, approximately two of these percentage points would be ascribable to the changes made to the 2001 questionnaire, therefore, artificial.

All things considered, according to the data for the whole period, the relative francization of allophones would have passed from 27.4 to 45.7%, that is to say a rise of 18.3 percent in 30 years. On the whole, however, eight of these points of percentage, of which six in 1991 and two in 2001, would arise from the modification to the questionnaire.

The effect of the duration of the stay

According to certain studies submitted to the Larose commission, the relative francization of a given group of allophone immigrants allophones increases according to the duration of their stay, generally in the region of Montreal. Actually, the evolution of relative francization between 1991 and 1996 - the only recent censuses for which the data are comparable - does not indicate in this respect any significant longitudinal tendency, the rate evolving slightly and, according to the group, sometimes on the rise, sometimes on the fall.

In addition to this, anglicized allophones are more likely than francized allophones to leave Quebec to migrate elsewhere to Canada. This migratory sifting causes a raise in the rate of relative francization among the members of immigrants groups who still reside in Quebec. Thus, a part, if not the totality, of the small progression of the relative francization of a given group between two censuses is due to this linguistic sifting rather than to the effect of the stay in Montreal in itself.

The language of work

The Gendron commission (1972) underlined the essential function of the language of work in the process of francization or anglicisation of allophone immigrants. It is why bill 22 and bill 101 both had as an objective to make French the usual language of work, in particular in the region of Montreal. The census data on the principal language of work, collected for the first time in 2001, confirm the relevance of this analysis.

In the region of Montreal, two thirds (67.3%) of the net shifts toward English at home by the French-speaking workers are associated the use of English as principal language to work. The bond is as obvious in the case of allophone workers. Among those who work mainly in French, 69.3% of the net shifts went to French. Conversely, among those who work mainly in English, 88.2% of the net shifts declared went to English.

In addition, the radiation of English as principal language of work in Montreal largely dominates that of French. The number of Montrealers who work mainly in French exceeds by 27,295 the total number of French-speaking workers whereas the number of those who works mainly in English exceeds by 136,832 that of English-speaking workers, that is to say a surplus five times higher than that of French. In fact, the French-speaking people who work mainly in English are almost twice as numerous as the English speakers who work mainly in French. And although French-speaking workers are more than six times more numerous than the English-speaking ones, allophones who work mainly in English are almost as numerous as those who work mainly in French.

Considering the extent of the linguistic imbalance being observed, it appears plausible that the direct contacts between people of different mother tongues in the work environment in Montreal wind up, most of the time, by the use of English as common language rather than the use of French as common language.

The real force of attraction of French

In the private space, the census makes it possible to note with precision that English always clearly dominates French as common language among linguistically mixed couples in Montreal. On the other hand, the census offers but partial information on the common public language. The data of 2001 nevertheless revealed the disproportionate force of English compared to French as principal language of work in Montreal, which undoubtedly indicates an advantage of English over French in situations of contact between workers of different languages.

The superiority of English as common language is even clearer in Gatineau. Now we know that the regions of Montreal and Gatineau are the main zones of contact between the languages in Quebec. The real status of French is determined in these regions. That French is the common language, public or private, in the massively French-speaking regions of Quebec does not have a great significance.

There is thus a considerable difference between the real force of French in situation of contact [between speakers of different mother tongues] on the field and the official discourse stating that French is the common language of Quebec society.

Moreover, the census shows that the real motor of the true progress of the force of attraction of French since 1971 is the addition of new groups of allophones who were considerably francized before they even arrived in Quebec and, except for the groups who arrived between 1996 and 2001, who were also mainly francotropic. In other words, without the change to the ethnolinguistic composition of immigration, without the selection of immigrants and the interprovincial linguistic sifting - and changes to the questionnaire! -, the vitality of French would have seen at best an very modest improvement.

It can appear astonishing that the fact of living in Quebec does not exert a more significant effect of francization and that the duration of stay also benefits anglicisation. But it seems that the advantage of English over French in the working place in Montreal and in the related Cégep and University milieu makes for a counterweight to francization by the language of schooling.

by Charles Castonguay
Professor of Mathematics, University of Ottawa

See also

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