Part of my family is from Wales. Welsh is a beautiful, lilting verse. It makes road signs comically large, and inspires the Elvish tongue and a certain kind of crystal-loving fantasy novelist. But the Welsh language is in decline, and while I love its sound and culture, saving it is not my job.
There’s another language in decline: French. When it comes to Latin languages, Spanish won, taking over most of South America and Mexico. Spanish is the mother tongue of countries whose economies and populations will soar in coming decades. Meanwhile, French wanes worldwide. Students in Vietnam protest at having to learn It. Long the language of diplomacy at the UN, even the venerated Economist now questions the wisdom of hanging on to it.
Naturally, French speakers fear this shrinkage, and with it, the loss of French culture. Nowhere is the fight to save French more pitched than in Québec, where the ruling party would sooner tear a nation asunder, and tumble the resulting country into an economic abyss, than compromise.
I’m a Montrealer. Born in England, I entered French Immersion in Québec at age four. My wife can trace her roots back to the first French colonists, and the Hèlene-De-Champlain house itself. My daughter is in a bilingual pre-school, and happily chats in both English and French. We read French and English books to her every night.
I’m irrationally proud of my adopted bilingualism. When I travel to the US, people are amazed that I speak French. When I travel elsewhere in Canada, I find myself defending French language, Montreal culture, and local entrepreneurship all the time. I wax rhapsodic about Poutine and the Sucrerie, the Cinq-a-Sept and the Térrasses, the produits de terroir, the ice storm, and the slow-sliding ice on the Fleuve.
Last week, I gave an hour-long talk on entrepreneurship to 400 people in Quebec City. I translated 120 slides on a 3-hour train ride from Montreal to Québec. Sure, the talk wasn’t perfect. Sure, I used Google Translate more than I like to admit. Nevertheless, people mostly laughed in the right places.
Before the speech, I did an interview with a local tech website, and the interviewer was thrilled I could do so in French. I was thrilled, too.
But the ruling Parti Québécois is cracking down on what they see as a slippery slope towards compromise, and on the casual inclusion of English words into French—what we Montrealers refer to with the portmanteau “franglais.” Nothing is more symbolic of this compromise than the familiar greeting, “bonjour-hi.”
Bonjour-hi is détente. It’s a happy middle ground. Shopkeepers greet you with it: French first, English shorter; a recognition of the reality in which we live. Montreal, home to more than half the province’s people, and most of its engines of economic growth—but thanks to culturalist gerrymandering, not more than half its political power—has made peace with two languages.
And now, apparently, that peace is a bad thing. This is completely the wrong approach, and the political leaders who realize that fact will win the hearts, minds, and votes of the majority of Quebec’s citizens even as they preserve its culture and language.
The French language, if it is to survive, needs ambassadors. It needs allies. It needs people who are proud to speak French outside Québec’s borders, both in Canada and abroad.
Even though I live here, I never signed up to save “bonjour” or French, any more than I signed up to save “cyfarchion” or Welsh. I did, however, sign up to save “bonjour-hi.” That is my fight.
There are already enough French speakers in Québec speaking, and advocating, French. But there are precious few advocates of French traveling outside the province, carrying the cultural torch for which it stands.
The current PQ strategy will result in a slow, insular, isolationist decline and an inevitable economic collapse. For my beloved Montreal’s culture to survive, it’s far better for politicians to join forces with those of us who love you, and will wave the banner of bonjour-hi to the corners of the planet.
That’s how you save culture.