I saw this report, from the Canadian Press, on Global News, a few days ago. It said that “Statistics Canada is reporting a jump in the number of bilingual Canadians … [and] … The federal agency reports Monday that in the 2016 census, 17.9 per cent of Canadians said they were able to conduct a conversation in both English and French, the highest percentage ever recorded … [further] … The data shows that young Canadians are more likely to be bilingual, and the phenomenon is most pronounced in Quebec.“
I’m guessing that the news reports are based on this report from Statistics Canada: Results from the 2016 Census: English–French bilingualism among Canadian children and youth. It’s filled with interesting data. This chart may be helpful:
What is shows, essentially, is that in Québec the retention rate of bilingualism (measured in 2016) ~ which is what really matters in my view ~ amongst young people who were tested in 2006 (when they were aged 5 to 17) was 90%, more or less, for all Quebecers, regardless of mother tongue but outside Québec only those whose mother tongue was French remained at 90+% proficiency.
The other key finding was that while bilingualism had increased all across Canada …
… the overall rate of bilingualism is much, much higher in Québec than in the rest of Canada.
I said, in the title, that this is not surprising. Why not?
Utility, in a word.
Despite the herculean efforts of the Gouvernement du Québec (since La charte de la langue française (Loi 101) was introduced over 40 years ago (in 1977)) to promote the use of French and to actually restrict the spread of English, the French language is, simply, less useful for young people, anywhere and everywhere, including in Québec than is English. This is a global phenomenon … it’s not anyone’s fault, English is the global lingua franca. Despite its lack of coherence (its flexibility, in other words), English is (relatively) simple, very robust and highly adaptable ~ there is nothing like the Académie française that tries to “purify” the English language by trying to stamp out foreign words. In fact, English seems to welcome foreign influences.
A half-century of efforts to promote the use of French across Canada and 40 years of concerted efforts to restrict the use of English in Québef have failed. Slightly more children from nine provinces and three territories were bilingual in 2016 than in 2006. But I would argue that the rate of increase is accounted for, totally, by availability: Government-supported French immersion programmes are there and they will be used. If the government supported Spanish immersion or Mandarin immersion or Hindi immersion then the rates of second and third language acquisition and retention would have increased, I believe, at exactly the same rate. It has nothing to do with Canadians, outside of Québec wanting or needing to be English-French bilingual (does anyone actually raise their children hoping that they will be salaried federal public servants?); it is all about parents wanting their children to be better at everything, and a second language, any second language, is a good thing. But in Québec, both parents, especially French-speaking parents, and young people know that English is more useful than French. Ditto for French-speaking New Brunswickers.
Outside of parts of the federal and New Brunswick governments and almost all of the Gouvernement du Québec, no one needs French in Canada. Certainly, no one from America or China or Germany or Italy needs to speak French to do business in Canada, including in Québec. Canadians, from Quesnel to Québec City will deal with them in their native language, if they can, or, most likely, in the global lingua franca: English. It’s just a fact of life.
Official bilingualism is part of the fabric of Canada. But, let’s not pretend that it makes a lot of economic sense. It doesn’t. Young people, including young Québécoises et Québécois, have already spoken, in both languages, on the issue.