This column is the opinion of Eric Deguire, writer and French teacher in Montreal. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.
Following the debate on Bill 96 in Anglophone and Francophone circles in Quebec over the past few weeks, it seems that we are seeing the Two Solitudes reappear. A cleavage can again be observed between the most virulent members on each side.
Many Francophones wanted a more aggressive approach to protecting the French language at the college level – the colleges that Quebec students attend after grade 11. Anglophone groups wanted assurances that their right to pursue an education in English would be protected.
The Coalition Avenir Québec government opted for a somewhat convoluted policy — requiring Anglophone students to take three of their core courses in French — angering people on both sides of the issue.
This change will not have a significant impact on the protection of the French language. At the same time, the anger observed in the English-speaking CEGEP community seems unjustified since it is in no way an attempt at assimilation.
Many English-speaking CEGEP students worry that their grades will suffer if they have to take more French classes. This shows that not enough is being done at the primary and secondary levels, and that teachers need to keep an open mind as students adjust to this change. But in the end, it remains a great opportunity for students to improve their French skills, since business experiences and other professional experiences in Quebec are often done largely in French.
This debate over a tiny change to the CEGEP language program is like a storm in a teapot. If we really want to improve the French skills of Quebecers, efforts must begin much earlier than college.
It seems to me that English elementary schools—accessible to students whose parents received an English education in Canada—now only have the English name. Educators and parents proudly tout the quality of their French immersion programs, where students learn entirely in French until grade three or even beyond, depending on the school. These intensive programs are supposed to give young Quebecers the best chance of mastering French from an early age, in order to function and flourish in our society.
On the French side, there is a similar phenomenon — often at secondary level, in private schools and international programs. These schools value the time they spend teaching English, emphasizing that it is the language of business and the international community.
It seems to me that these so-called French and English schools pursue the same objective: bilingualism, and perhaps even greater multilingualism for young Quebecers.
Achieving this goal is supposed to give them the best possible chance for the future. It will open doors for you, professionally, but also socially and even on a personal level. Enjoying literature and cinema in many languages is a beautiful experience that enriches our humanity.
If that is the goal we seek, we are missing the best way to achieve it. Keeping Anglophones and the rest of Quebec students in separate school systems does not create the social mix necessary for true mastery of a second language.
Students who have gone to French school often end up improving their English through experiences that are meaningful to them: television, cinema, music and video games. This is due to the global power and influence of American culture — which is probably the main reason for protecting the French language in Quebec today.
Speaking French only in the classroom will never be enough. Making friends who speak the language will make all the difference – and children make most of their friends at school.
I propose a school system that could be at 80%. 100 in French and at 20 p. 100 in English from primary to secondary. Core courses can be taught in English and French, and adjustments can be made based on student skills, through the creation of enriched and other programs to support students with special needs.
But the objective should be the mastery of the first language in French for all.
This, I believe, will lead to true integration, greater harmony between social groups and, I sincerely hope, a strong French language in Quebec society for decades to come – while seizing the opportunity to master English and as many other languages as possible.
CBC Quebec welcomes your presentations for first-person essays. Please email [email protected] for details.