A lament on language

A mere four hours east of Kingston on the 401 takes you to a wonderful and, unfortunately for most Canadians, rather foreign place. I am enjoying the beginning of my summer in the beautiful province of Québec, specifically in a medium-sized village named Chicoutimi, about 300 km north of Québec City.

It’s a shame such a wonderful part of our country is so socially divided from its fellow provinces. For well over two centuries, Canada has struggled with the task of reconciling the fundamental differences of language and culture between its English and French inhabitants. I don’t think this is going to change anytime soon.

However, the stark cultural differences that existed a hundred years ago have largely been blurred. We’re not arguing over which church to call home anymore. And who doesn’t love poutine?

What divides Québec from the rest of Canada today is language. Anyone can graduate from the public school system in every province except Québec without being able to say more than “bonjour.” Some bilingual country we have.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly connected, multilingualism is an incredibly valuable skill. But it is ultimately a public good, so everyone has a disincentive to invest in it despite its universal benefits. It would be great if all Canadians could speak French, but few make the effort to learn it themselves.

This is where our government should come in. Since every Canadian, and Canada as a whole (including Québec, of course), benefits from being bilingual, our public education system should prepare us enough to be able to converse in both languages. But there isn’t enough pressure on our politicians to enforce such regulations in our curriculum.

I think people would advocate for better French education more strongly if they had faith that our public system were capable of making us bilingual. The curriculum needs two drastic improvements: it has to start earlier and it has to be more immersive. You can’t learn a language by conjugating verbs, and once you get older, learning the basics becomes exponentially more difficult.

Other countries teach second languages very well. I’ve met many people from Europe and South America who speak English fluently, and they only learned it in public school.

If other education systems can teach a completely foreign language, there should be no reason why we can’t teach an official one.

By the end of my course here, I hope to be able to confidently say that “je parle français.” And while the personal satisfaction of learning another language is extraordinary, I wish learning French in Canada were a standard requirement rather than an individual endeavor.

I don’t blame people for not learning French, because learning a language is hard. For the amount of time I’ve studied it, it’s infuriating that I’m not fully bilingual yet. Yes, I’m blaming the politicians for my present struggle, but I think I have pretty good reason to.

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