Pauline Marois’ Quiet English Revolution

with 51 comments


In 1988, just before South Africa’s Apartheid regime was about to expire its last foul breath, an antiapartheid organization called the South African Council for Higher Education put out a small comic book designed to help young black children to learn English.  The book was immediately banned by the all-white ruling minority.

Were blacks forbidden to learn English under Apartheid?  Quite the contrary.  English and Afrikaans, the languages of the white minority, were the sole official languages of South Africa in those days while the languages spoken by the black majority had no legal status.  English and Afrikaans were the languages of government, public services and of secondary education, even for blacks.

The novel on which the comic book was based, Down Second Avenue by the exiled South African writer Ezekial Mphahlele, had been freely available in South Africa for three decades.  Even the comic book version of the author’s account of his youth in violent and racist Pretoria had been published before.

Why was the government scared of this edition?  Because it was a textbook.  Because it was a tool designed to get young black kids to reflect on injustice and racism, in their master’s language…

Young blacks were taught English during Apartheid, but they were taught using textbooks from England about white preppy boys in London.  Books that perpetuated the image of English as the language of power, and the corollary, that power rightfully belonged to the English.  Their reality: black, multilingual and poor was foreign.  Defective.

Down Second Avenue: The comic turned that on its head.  It taught Blacks the language of power so they could use it to discuss their reality and to empower themselves.  They could even use English, as other textbooks eventually did, to teach you black kids about the multilingual reality of Africa and the importance of protecting and empowering African languages.

This is where Pauline Marois comes in.

Ignoring the extremely violent opposition from a certain wing of the Parti Québécois and the even more hysterical cries of madness from the Federalist A-list – who seem to share a belief that almighty English will destroy Québec and must at all costs be kept out of the hands of common people – this week Pauline Marois once again proposed that certain classes in Québec high schools, perhaps history, geography or even math, be taught in English.

This is (almost) a brilliant idea.

Parents have been demanding better English classes and immersion and this is a very positive step, especially for families in the regions who don’t have as much exposure to English as Montrealers.

But Pauline Marois’ truly revolutionary idea, which is also the most controversial, is her twice repeated suggestion that History, be thought in English.  Her not-so-great idea is to teach math in English.

Why is it a good idea to teach History in the international language of science and not math? Precisely because we would spontaneously have it the other way around.

Currently, History is taught in French.  French becomes the language of the past, of our heritage, of the Plains of Abraham defeat and the failed referendums.  English on the other hand is taught as a second language necessary for travel, technology, modernity and international fraternity (as it is always naively portrayed in US and Western-made textbooks).

With Marois’ proposal, English would become the language used to explore the past of French-Canadians, but also their successes, the Quiet Revolution and the ongoing struggle to protect French-language culture in North America.  Geography class would become a place to discuss, in English, the linguistic and cultural diversity of planet Earth and the international vitality of the Francophonie, a language that as never had more speakers than it has today.

All this without threatening the overall predominance of the language of Joseph-Armand Bombardier in all other subjects, including the all important sciences.

Teaching History in English would significantly improve the access of Québec kids to English without making them captive of the stereotype that reduces French to the status of heritage language while making English the only language of the modern world outside.

The South African comic book simultaneously helped blacks learn the language of power, but also exposed how that language was a tool of their oppression.  In the same way, teaching History and geography in English would give Québec kids access to the international language of business and scholarship, but also some perspective on where Québec belongs in this global multilingual world.

Enough perspective to ask questions like:

If English really is the magic amulet that automatically opens the doors of modernity, technology and wealth, then why aren’t the Philippines the richest country in Asia?  And why isn’t Japan the poorest?

Discuss.  In English.

Written by angryfrenchguy

November 24, 2008 at 12:10 am

51 Responses

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  1. littlerob writes: “The irony is that I believe that monolingual English speakers are some of the most insular and isolated people on the planet because they have only been exposed to one language for almost all of their lives, and that that sort of thing ain’t good for getting a well rounded perspective on things.”

    In a way, I agree. Native speakers of English, because of the incomparable international status their language recently acquired, a phenomenon on which individually they had as much control over as global warming, are surrounded by natives of other languages who have walked half-way towards becoming like them to communicate with them in English. This network of second-language speakers vastly outnumbers the number of native speakers, and wraps around them wherever they go, like an invisible Web.

    It used to be that in the world of native English speakers, there were other natives of the same language, some second-languages speakers with various levels of fluency, and a whole universe of others with whom communication was impossible, but through gestures and grimaces. Now, at least in all major urban areas where the Americans and British have developed important trade relations, they will easily find people able to understand them when they speak.

    No human community presently experiences this on a global scale. There are some languages that have a strong status continentally, but even they are heavily interpenetrated by English.

    Within this context, it is easy to imagine that ordinary folks who may have learned two or three things about Spanish or French in school, but never experienced the need to learn another language to go up the economic ladder, are able to travel, work and even live as monolingual English speakers in a lot of places where English really is not the language of the locals, yet has become a part of the lives of the local.

    While continuing to speak your language in a foreign city, for many years, will you experience “foreignness”? Of course. You will experience and share into the material aspect of the culture of others. Some will acquired foreign words and introduce them into the English language, but not nearly as fast as English words pour into other languages.

    For the native English speaker, full immersion into another culture through the language of the people making it becomes really a matter of choice. One that disobeys the law of least effort, and one which will only be taken by a very determined minority.

    Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote

    November 27, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  2. 3 factors militate against English-speakers worldwide learning other languages.

    1) Hegemony :
    As Mathieu states, the law of least efforts makes it so that people who can get by everywhere using their own language are not compelled to learn another one. Unless, that is, they are part of the minority of people curious about other cultures and languages.

    Add the fact that Anglo-Saxon culture now being so widespread, it is very easy to think that knowing English is enough to be in touch with everything worthwhile. Thus grows indifference.

    [This has nothing to do with a particular Anglo-Saxon ethos : I’m convinced that the French, the Spanish or the Romans were all like that at the height of their respective empires.]

    2) Anglo-Saxon political imperialism :
    Ever since the end of WWII, there have been concerted, well-funded political efforts by the gvts of America and G-B to make English the hegemonic World language. Replete with a devaluation of other languages, both in international institutions and locally.

    That is done to ply other nations to their World view.

    3) “Whole language” theories :
    As I’ve started realizing, and discussed in a different thread, English-speaking students are taught their native language with minimum, if any at all, grammar comprehension.
    This severely limits their ability to learn foreign languages, as they cannot make sense of concepts and rules that would help them decode other languages.
    (Given point 2, if I was inclined to believe in conspiracy theories I’d wonder if that is not so on purpose…)

    Quebec, in trying to integrate its minorities and immigrants to French, is fightng against all those factors.


    November 28, 2008 at 12:13 pm

  3. Interesting article however you are off the mark again AFG. The comparison in this in regards to apartheid and Bill 101 is not about language but the intolerance and justification of the laws.

    South Africa with it’s white minority population justified the laws by saying the whites needed these segregation laws because they are a minority in the black majority continent of Africa. The whites claimed the only way TO PRESERVE the white minority is with these laws that may not seem fair to the blacks in South Africa…

    Quebec says the same thing, in order to PRESERVER the minority French language and heritage in a continent of English in North America Quebec must use laws that may not seems fair to the English .

    Right now all you nationalist are doing a double take and you will probably be mad at my statement and perhaps not understand. It’s ok nothing new here

    Again the comparison is not about the laws that Quebec and south Africa use but the justification. Quebec (Canada) and South Africa use the same justification in order to hurt others. Shame, time to open your eyes you just don’t see it


    November 28, 2008 at 4:44 pm

  4. Angryphone:

    tell me exactly how, as an anglgophone in Quebec, bill 101 hurts you.


    November 28, 2008 at 5:02 pm

  5. Angryphone,

    Quebec’s language laws aim to integrate minorities and immigrants into the wider political community. Not to segregate them.

    If anything, the anglophone minority of Quebec tries to segregate itself, and tries to take other minorities along to beef itself up.


    November 28, 2008 at 6:05 pm

  6. Dear genosses, Kriss, Raman and the furer of the Free Q. Republic, Herr Mathieau!
    101 hurts me, as I should to wear a yellow star on my chest. No French? You are a second-class citizen… No any and any political career. Quebec is uber alle. You must swear to Quebec values. Not to beat women with the stones. Heil!


    November 28, 2008 at 6:44 pm

  7. Raman

    November 28, 2008 at 6:48 pm

  8. Real and nice movie! Have seen for the first time. Beautiful actors. This is FQR in the nearest future with the AFG as a general ideologist.


    November 28, 2008 at 7:31 pm

  9. Geck:
    “Dear genosses, Kriss, Raman and the furer of the Free Q. Republic, Herr Mathieau!
    101 hurts me, as I should to wear a yellow star on my chest. No French? You are a second-class citizen… No any and any political career. Quebec is uber alle. You must swear to Quebec values. Not to beat women with the stones. Heil!”

    A lot of emotions, clichés, exageration and vicious parallels with nazis…the usual comptention.

    But, again:

    Tell me exactly how, as an anglgophone in Quebec, bill 101 hurts you.

    Real facts please. #1,#2,#3 etc.

    So we could discuss them rationaly.


    November 28, 2008 at 10:12 pm

  10. I have always supported knowing both languages and indeed if this is what Marois intends then I support it entirely. There is nothing wrong with either language, nor any other language for that matter.
    As an anglophone in quebec, I never had an issue with the french language, that is, until bill 101 was implemented and it started feeling like french was being shoved down our throats. you see I think a much more open society would only benefit quebec, not take away from it. anglophone children are learning french from kindergarten alternating one wk in french and one in english of all subjects. this type of program is also implemented throughout the balance of elementary school however, one day in french and one day in english. high school is much the same if children remain in either the bilingual or international program, in the international program, spanish is introduced (as a third language) beginning in secondary 1 through secondary 3. spanish in sec 4 & 5 are optional.
    I encourage this type of learning, and as for the narrow-mindedness of anglophones implied by some on this blog, i do not feel this is narrow-minded and anglophone children in quebec are now becoming trilingual.
    just what is wrong with francophones knowing more than just french? it is advantageous to anyone knowing more than one language, whether it’s spanish, english, french, mandarin as a second language.
    i am not a supporter of marois however, if this is a true reflection of how she feels, who knows, my opinion could change.
    who says french and english cannot co-exist? i believe the only people who think so in quebec are francophone.


    November 28, 2008 at 10:19 pm

  11. CD

    Thanks for the perspective. I never thought of the material difficulties, or of the lack of qualified teachers. That has to be adressed.


    All the bilingualism you talk about is a RESULT of Bill 101. It did not exist before. And where did you get that Francophones did not want to learn English? There are 4 times more bilingual people and seven times more trilingual people in Québec than in the rest of North America. Québec has some problems. multilinguism is not one of them.


    November 28, 2008 at 10:45 pm

  12. Take it one step further; I think the whole province would be better off if education in Quebec were all bilingual — one school system for all, both languages. It would do a lot to reduce the resentments on both sides of this issue. Anglo kids would speak better French, Franco kids would speak better English and Quebec would be the better for it.


    November 29, 2008 at 3:31 am

  13. AFG – I agree that the french program in english schools today, is a direct result of Bill 101 however, French as a second language always existed in English schools just not as intense a program as today.
    I never said Francophones do not want to learn English however, the impression I get is here in Quebec only French is necessary, I don`t feel this should be the case since Quebec (or Canada as a whole) tries to portray itself as a multicultural country.
    edgy555 – I agree with your statement, we should have bilingual schools, it would save money as well as integrate French and English. How could this be a negative solution?


    November 29, 2008 at 9:44 am

  14. No one’s answered the last question regarding Japan and the Phillipines.

    I’ve just returned from Japan. Not too many fluent English or French speakers but quite a few Japanese actually could understand basic English.

    The Japanese have quite a good education system. Their top students often learn two or three other languages. There’s quite a few who speak excellent French. Some are right here in Montreal. They also speak excellent English.

    As for the Phillipines. I think one needs to look at the fact that it’s a collection of languages and islands. Many just speak Tagalog, the predominant language, a mix of native, Spanish and English. The other dialects also have similar structure.

    The Phillipines suffer from the imposition of both Spanish and U.S. colonialism with the consequent lack of development of an independent culture.

    Can’t say that about the Japanese.


    November 29, 2008 at 10:08 am

  15. Interesting perspective.

    I have always found it amusing in Montreal that when walking down the street one hears many people chatting in English, but (at least in the East) as soon as they enter a shop or restaurant and engage in business it switches to French. Thus in Montreal, at least, Engilsh is a major language of socializing and personal interactions and French is the major language of business. This seems entirely backwards from how the outside would might imagine it should be. Isn’t English the international language of business. Shouldn’t French be the favoured language for intimate discourse and socializing?

    What I describe does not apply to everyone, of course, but I think for a large segment of the urban population it is true. At least in part this is because outsiders (other than Quebecers or Frenchmen) often fare worse in French than Montrealais do in Engilsh.

    So, curiously the situation you advocate for schools already exists spontaneously on the streets of Montreal.
    As for Bill 101 harming anglophones, I think it clearly does. But I suppose that is just too bad. Deal with it! Most laws both protect us and restrict us at the same time. The irony of democracy is that the minority must always sacrifice for the benefit of the majority. 101 is linguistic protectionism and in the long run it hurts the majority too, just like economic protectionism. It is appealing to try to preserve local industry and jobs, but it makes business lazy and unable to compete internationally. We need a way to keep francophone society from getting complacent under bill 101 if we want to avoid falling victim to protectionism.


    November 29, 2008 at 4:58 pm

  16. Michel,
    In fact Japan was occupied by the US after WWII.

    What has always made the Japanese economy strong has been its single-minded pursuit of international education and the view that Japan as a nation deserves to have the very best of everything the world offers. The Meiji Emperor in the 19th century, intentionally sent the brightest students overseas in the hope of industrializing and modernizing Japan from within. Japanese as a nation always express a sense of admiration and a willingness to adopt things foreign, but have also found a way of taking the best from abroad and Japan-izing it for domestic use.

    If you make the very best stuff for yourself, the rest of the world will want it too. Japanese don’t worry that they’ve become too Americanized. They meticulously preserve certain aspects of traditional culture, but for the most part the more international the better…


    November 29, 2008 at 5:09 pm

  17. Hola! Antoine et AGF! Bonsoir à tous ( et à toutes)!

    Hey Antoine, il n’est pas nécessaire à séparer d’être plus proche! C’est vrai que nous canadiens anglais ne parlons pas très bien ta langue, si belle, mais si l’on l’étudie on fait une belle découverte! Ta langue est merveilleuse!

    Hey! Racine, Molière, Corneille, Voltaire, Diderot Beaumarchais, Rousseau, Zola, Balzac, Sartre et bien sûr les auteur-e-s Québecois-e-s et franco-canadien(nes) aussi! la Révolution française n’était pas pour rien! Mais on voudrais éviter la Terreur, c’est certain!

    Of course I understand your English, Antoine! What’s not to like? – You are clear, and minor grammar is hardly of great import — communication is all that’s important! It seems that les Québecois pour la plupart parlent assez bien l’anglais — but its true that the rest of the country is not functionally bilingual — we in other parts of Canada, only got core French from Grade 9 in my day, although my kids all became bilingual, starting around age 3 or 5 for le français and they laughed themselves silly when I tried to say anything French! Now they are grown and I’m back at school in Guelph trying to improve the other official language of my country, the one that that is your langue maternelle. I went also to Chicoutimi for a month and had a wonderful time, also in Québec City and other areas and I will come back many times to all areas and speak only in French and you guys will have to listen and laugh at me! I know your history and I realise you had 151 years as a frontier culture with many acheivements followed by about 200 really bad years with British and then anglo-canadien rule. But this is a different and wonderful Québec the last 50-60 years, and a different Canada as well. Lets celebrate both our languages! I have no opinion about whether teaching history in English in Québec schools is
    a good idea. Maybe it should be taught in French in Ontario. In general kids should have the opportunity to have 5 month exchanges and live in homes where no English will be used. This is what English Canada needs for our kids. In Québec probably getting to Montréal is good for those who want to get the second language, but best of course to live with a famiy here in Ontario.

    Why is Canada not like the USA? Because we have two founding cultures and languages (and others also, but not founding ones.) French is part of the Canadian psyche, whether we know it that well or not, we know that Québec has made us more diverse, more liberal more tolerant and made us a better (binational) nation.

    As for Stephen Harpur he can go to hell! What a bully and control freak! Hopefully he is going down, and hopefully for good. Plus his French sounds terrible to my ear! I guess he tried that way, but the main thing is he has a mean streak. You guys don’t like Dion, I suppose, but I think he a way better person that Harpur. Anglos may complain his English isn’t perfect but so what — his heart is in the right place, and his mind is clear. Lots of people here do like him, not so much in the West where they are somewhat “redneck” — not all but a bunch of bitching complainers to a degree. Still there are French language communities out there on the prairies, they don’t get the chance very much in the west to experience Québec and when they do — usually they love it.

    As for me, when I am in Québec je refuse de parler anglais. Il est vrai que des gens me répondent en anglais, mais je continue en français et on adapte gracieusement avec bonne humeur.

    Bonne chance à tous de vous canadiens qui sont arrivées à partir de 1608, et bonne 400e anniversaire!


    December 3, 2008 at 7:05 pm

  18. “As for me, when I am in Québec je refuse de parler anglais. Il est vrai que des gens me répondent en anglais, mais je continue en français et on adapte gracieusement avec bonne humeur.”

    Perhaps you should stay there if you enjoy it so much.


    December 4, 2008 at 12:48 am

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