Recently, the Quebec Board of the French Language threatened a boutique owner with a fine for failing to post everything on her Facebook page in French and English. Eva Cooper, who is bilingual (as are her employees), serves her customers in French and in English, and was simply “not interested” in writing identical posts in French to match each English post she shared. She has owned businesses in Quebec since 2005 and has been cooperative with laws, but was completely unaware that laws governing advertisements included Facebook.
Luckily for her, the charges were dropped. As an outsider, though, I was absolutely floored that this was even an issue. Granted, I don’t engage with and fully understand how these laws affect daily life in Quebec. However, language doesn’t lose its spontaneous nature anywhere, and it’s ridiculous for any organization with even a shred of influence to think that it has the power to regulate language or its use.
But this isn’t the first time that a governing body has tried to be the ruling authority on a language. One of the most discussed topics in a French literature course I’m currently taking is, bien sûr, L’Académie française. The French Academy exercises enormous authority to this day, and even updates its website, for the convenience of those who are curious, with what is and what is not good French.
So here are two governing bodies that dictate language, coincidentally, French. This makes me wonder: do they have a place in regulating French? Do governments have a role in language at all? Should a language be subject to top-down regulation, and if it is subjected to regulation, is there any benefit to that?
The Charter of the French Language doesn’t shed much light on the problem. The preamble says that it was drafted in a “spirit of fairness and open-mindedness,” to assure “quality and influence of the French language,” in keeping with the “obligation of every people to contribute in its special way to the international community.” It reads like a presumptuous constitution.
To learn more, I went to one of the most organic and crowdsourced information bases on the internet: Reddit. Under /r/Quebec, there’s a curious article about why half of non-Francophone Quebecers are toying with the idea of leaving Quebec altogether. The title is a bit loaded, but as it turns out, most people cited reasons like economic and political instability rather than language. However, several nodded to the “divisive mood” in Quebec. A woman who came over from England in the 1970s finds the current mood “limiting.” Another resident says that bilingualism, which was once a point of pride, has become so politicized that it is nearly a point of contention.
“For the first time since the ’90s, I feel like I have to assert my anglophone-ness, my English-ness,” he says. “You know, things have been dormant and so calm for so long that my brother and myself and my friends were comfortable speaking French.” He notes that the possibility of a Parti Quebecois majority in upcoming elections is making residents wonder if they’re up for a “roller coaster” again.
One needs to dig a little deeper to better understand his worry. About 18 months ago, PQ Minister Diane De Courcy said that English skills should not be a job requirement, but a “bonus” for employers seeking bilingual employees. If bilingualism becomes a workplace requirement, she fears that it could lead to further “erosion” of French in Quebec.
De Courcy was simply meta-narrating compared to Pauline Marois (party leader and current Premier of Quebec), who outright refused to participate in an English-speaking debate. “I am able to speak in English and I think I improved my English, but I don’t think I will be very comfortable in a debate for explaining my specific point of view and I don’t think that will serve the Anglo Quebecers,” she said in a campaign statement.
Here’s an incumbent politician who won’t even “serve” English-speaking Quebecers by speaking English in a public debate. Does Marois expect to “serve” English-speaking Quebecers any differently if she wins her election?
No wonder people sense divisiveness. Language barriers pose enough of a challenge, but politicians politicize language, and the French-speaking majority can leverage a whole Charter to have their will imposed on people, businesses, and institutions.
Is it assuming as a US American and native English speaker to criticize the Charter of the French Language? Probably. But, I did watch Twitter blow up during the Superbowl over the Coca-Cola ad. My country might not have a Charter of the English Language to decide Language of Commerce and Business, Language of Instruction, or Language of Labour Relations, but we do have thousands of closed-minded people with computer access who would probably like an English-speaking Charter very much.
Language, and the use of language, should be allowed to move, evolve, and change to fit the needs of the people using it. Language and culture are so closely intertwined that if a government intervenes in language, it is effectively intervening in culture. The idea that there should be one language alone, and that one governing body should enforce the use of that one language, is creepily nationalistic. In fact, it’s weirder: nationalism asks unquestioning loyalty but doesn’t follow up, while a one-language policy demands compliance and will most definitely follow up. The Charter of the French Language is too political, invasive, and inconsistent to be a practical policy.