Montréal, 13 mai 2000  /  No 62
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville.
by Ralph Maddocks
          That periodic lovefest organised by the Parti Québécois took place last week-end. Among their cherished objectives, apart from discussing their interminably boring political option, was making an effort to avoid a repeat of their performance on their last time out when they approved the leader by only 76.7%. A number which did not seem to please their leader at that time. He was alleged to have disappeared to reflect upon this additional humiliation, presumably more humiliating because it was done by his friends rather than those whose occupation he believes it is to humiliate him, the federalists.  
          Apparently, last week-end they managed to avoid a repeat performance of this humiliating event by achieving a 91% vote approving that same leadership. Is it now possible that the Federal Clarity Act could set the lower figure of 75% as the percentage acceptable in a referendum? The leader of the PQ could then explain why 50% plus one is good for a referendum on independence but not good for confirming political leaders. 
          The other item of absorbing interest, to some at least, was the reintroduction of the language debate. One may have noticed in recent weeks that the local, vocal, protectors of the French language have begun gearing up for the next referendum. Even though, time after time, polls show us that a referendum is not exactly uppermost in most people's minds. However, the PQ's favourite pollster claims that when people are asked if the French language is threatened, they respond that it is. This is grist to the mill of our péquiste friends because it gives them something to posture about when the population has tuned out the word sovereignty. If people seem to believe that French is threatened in Quebec then it has probably a great deal more to do with the propagandizing spin of the sovereigntists than with reality.  
Rule e-English 
          There seemed no indication that the participants were aware of a rather startling piece of news and a prediction issued a few weeks ago. At least as far as could be seen, the item did not produce the usual hysterical predictions of impending catastrophe from a certain lady Minister in the Quebec government. Perhaps the lack of response was due to the fact that the Minister in question may not be a reader of the newspaper which published this surprising news. 
          In early March, The Sunday Times of London published an article whose title parodied the chorus line of a patriotic British song. The song in question is Rule Britannia, an anthem sung lustily by the entire audience on the Last Night of the Proms, that famous annual series of classical music concerts from London's Royal Albert Hall. The article was titled « e-English rules the waves » 
          Even that other group who might have been expected to complain about the growing use of the English language, the French government, remained oddly silent. We have heard complaints about internet domination by the English language before, but somehow, of late, they seem to have become muted. Perhaps because it is dawning on the protesters that their claims about the French language being threatened are largely unsupported by fact. 
          The language of the internet is of course overwhelmingly English, with an estimated 85% of its pages being in that tongue. There has been a veritable explosion of neologisms related to the internet: e-mail, cyberspace, emoticons, web, downloads, etc., etc. The article predicted that, in this wired world we have all begun to inhabit, English, or that variant of it used in the United States of America, will be employed by half of the world's population by the year 2050. Since the use of the internet is growing exponentially, this will mean that every new user will be obliged to learn some form at least of the English language. Those who choose not to do so will find themselves inhabiting what the article called a cyberghetto. 
          All languages are under some kind of threat, at least from the point of view of the purist who cannot abide the slightest inclusion of a « foreign » word. Another way in which a language can be threatened is by legislation. Some would say that the use of the English language in this province is under such a threat. Yet it survives. The French language, or some form of it, has also survived in places like New England and Louisiana and, if anything, these places are arguably more heavily influenced by US English than we are. Recently, there was a piece on TV about Quebec youth preferring English (American) popular songs, even though they don't necessarily understand the lyrics! 
Lingua franca doesn't mean langue française 
          Last January, before the French asked that English be the working language at Paris airports and before Quebec's Commissar de la langue française shamed them into rescinding that order, the Paris Health Authority had issued a language directive. Their directive said that all reports must be filed in English because, as it explained, it is now the world language. The directive added that French is no longer to be considered as the written medium employed in hospitals and laboratories under its control. This instruction followed an order, also uncontested by our Commissar, issued by Renault last year to the effect that all of its internal reports must be in English! An instruction that may strike one as bizarre, but they must know what they are doing. 
          In Germany, where they seem to have given up hope of the English ever learning German, they are now promoting English as the language of the 21st century, with lessons for children beginning at the age of six. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's largest state, it was announced that primary school pupils are to be taught English through a reworked curriculum involving games and play. The state intends to hire 1200 new English teachers to ensure this. 
     « In a free society, people will learn those languages that offer them the best personal advantages, and legislating for or against the use of another is of little value. »  
          The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has begun to produce an eight page English edition and the paper said that when their new product would go online « the language barrier of the English will be left behind ». The announcement added that « English is going to be the lingua franca of the next century. » 
          A recent European Union study showed that English is taking over from French as the main official language, even though the community has ten other working languages. The study claimed that four and a half times as many secondary schoolchildren in the EU are learning English as a second language, rather than French. 
          In the May 14 edition of a Polish newspaper, there appeared an article extolling the virtues of learning English and reporting that the European Commission is funding the education of translators. The Polish Ministry of Education also announced in April a plan entitled, « English in every gimnazjum ». In a reform of the education system last year, the ministry created this compulsory three-year school known as a Gimnazjum, the equivalent of a Junior High School. The article pointed out that there is an increasing need for English as Poland begins to venture more and more into international business and into organizations such as the European Union. At the same time, the Polish army, because of its involvement with NATO, is apparently quite anxious to recruit English speaking graduates. 
Bill 101 made in Poland? 
          At virtually the same time an interesting message came to me from Poland, via a normally reliable source, claiming that a new law had come into effect on 8 May 2000 a law known as the Polish Language Protection Act. The Act allegedly makes it a criminal offence to use words such as « joystick », « fast food », « snack bar » and so on. The applicable fines for such offences were alleged to go up to one hundred thousand new zlotys (about $33,360 Can) and the legislation seems to be directed mainly to advertisers, traders, merchants, businesses, etc. The writer gave some links to the Polish Parliament, the Polish President and to an organization devoted to Freedom of Speech. However, when I tried to send messages to these links it proved impossible and pages were returned as either « cannot find server » or « page not displayed ». In the case of the Sejm, clicking on their e-mail button produced no response at all. Perhaps they have huge technical problems with their servers. A call to the Polish Embassy in Ottawa revealed that they knew nothing at all about this legislation. All of which is very interesting and may perhaps provide the basis for a future article. 
          If the information is true then Poland, being a nation given to protestation, may well find that the chances are that it will go the way of all similar legislation with few of the population obeying it. It seems that all business communications and advertising have to be in Polish as well as any other language (sounds familiar doesn't it), most likely German or English. Unlike some places, Poland has no large minority at which such a law can be directed. This sort of thing has been done before in Europe, in the first halves of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when nationalist feelings were in running high.  
          It is not legislation that counts but the willingness of people to learn and keep a language as exemplified by the examples mentioned above. In Wales there have been problems getting people to learn their language. Legislation has been passed and large amounts of money have been spent, but still people will not learn the language. Even those, like Ireland, who have made knowledge of their language mandatory, find that it is little used. In Eastern Europe, where Russian was compulsory for many years, how many East Europeans speak that language today? In a free society, people will learn those languages that offer them the best personal advantages, and legislating for or against the use of another is of little value. 
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