Quebec chooses language over self-interest

Quebec’s loss, Alberta’s gain, all because Quebec forces Alia’s son to be schooled in French.

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During my last round of buffing at the Montreal aesthetics salon that I frequent, I enjoyed an interesting exchange with “Alia,” a lovely young woman of South Asian ancestry who threads ladies’ eyebrows for an embarrassing pittance.
Alia and her husband immigrated here three years ago. Their two-year old son is enrolled in one of Quebec’s famously cheap daycare programs. Alia’s husband is a messenger by day and a pizza deliveryman by night. In good functional English that she learned in Bangladesh, Alia outlined their long-range plan to me. They will stay in Montreal until their son finishes elementary school. Then, with her parents who are awaiting their green light to come here, “We will move to Calgary or Edmonton and open a 24-hour handy store.”
Why Alberta? Alia is happy to have her child educated in French for now, as is required under Quebec law. But if they expect to maximize his opportunities for success — and that was the whole point of their emigrating, and being prepared to work around the clock en famille in a store — he would have to learn how to read, speak and write high-level English.
Quebec’s loss, Alberta’s gain, all because Quebec forces Alia’s son to be schooled in French.
Today, in great swathes of the world, English unilingualism is no impediment to steady career advancement, whereas even tri- or quatri-lingualism — if none of the languages is English — is of little use for advancement. Furthermore, unilingualism in any language but English (that includes you, French) is the kiss of death to private-sector career advancement.
As we learn from Robert McCrum’s new book, Globish, excerpted in the Post last month, global English is the “world’s language.” A quarter of the world’s population speaks English with more or less proficiency. Resistance to its economic hegemony and institutional usefulness is futile. Indeed, apart from Quebec, there are few (any?) places in the world even trying to resist that reality.
Coercive language laws are counter-productive to a state’s prosperity. Governed by emotion, not reason, such laws have the effect of driving away the most entrepreneurial residents — not just ambitious immigrants like Alia and her family, but native sons and daughters too.
Local languages are culturally enriching and provide dazzling social capital amongst our cultural elites, but are most useful career-wise in bureaucratic linguistic hothouses (e.g., Quebec’s bloated civil service) where symbols of cultural equality trump reality. In the real world of the marketplace, English rules.
And where prosperity, not culture-worship, is the goal of a state’s government, reason prevails with a vengeance. According to a 2008 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an astonishing 96%-100% of those polled in China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam said it was important for their children to learn English. Even former colonies aren’t throwing out the baby with the bathwater. India was happy to see the back of the Brits, but learning English remained an obsession (India’s 1951 constitution was written in English). In May 2010, a temple in the state of Uttar Pradesh was dedicated to “Goddess English.”
Most people speak English out of self-interest, but those who love their native language won’t abandon it if both languages are taught side by side. In Bangladesh, the official, and fiercely loved Bangla language co-exists in harmony with English, that country’s valued, widespread and widely relied-upon second language. Likewise with Hebrew and English in Israel.
It’s time Quebec stopped cutting off its nose to spite its face. Colonialism was then, Globish is now. Admit it, accept it, and embrace it. If a language isn’t loved enough by native speakers to flourish, and can only be saved through the linguistic dhimmitude of others, it isn’t a language worth saving.
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