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. I’m french and i not able to speak english as well as you. Maybe because in Europe english language is not predomiant, it’s a minority language.

    When i travel in Morroco, Belgium, Italy, or anywhere… It’s rare i do not find anybody who speaks French. And If that occurs i have my basic english. I need to speak english to converse with non native English speaker, so my knowledge does not need to be completed, just basic.

    So i think that it will be easier for quebécois to accept to learn english if they were in their own unilingual state.

    Sometime to be closer it’s neccesary to be separate.

    Je ne sais pas si ce que je viens d’écrire est compréhensible. En tout cas c’est trés frustrant de ne pas pouvoir formuler toute sa réflexion.


    November 24, 2008 at 7:39 am

  2. Some people like Christian Dufour are opposed to that politic: he said if all quebecois become bilingual, it will be no longer necessary for the immigrants to lear french. It would be the same situation than Antoine in Morocco: he didn’t need to lear arabic because everybody was able to speak french to him. But i do not think that politic will permit to everybody to become fully bilingual: it will just improve their skills in english. It is almost impossible to practice english on a daily basic in area where nobody speaks english. Where i come from(i now live in Montreal ), it is only possible to practice english with americain or canadian tourist. That’s why my englih is so poor. Anaway, i am no againt that proposition..


    November 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm

  3. When a minority as a whole is bilingual, knowing the language of majority, assimilation is unavoidable.


    November 24, 2008 at 5:31 pm

  4. Although, i consider important than history teaching remain in french only, because the historic interpretation differs in english. We have to learn history from our own historians and authors, otherwise we could learn a politically correct interpretation of Quebec/canada, like Le canada une histoire populaire, and become jovialists about the past..


    November 24, 2008 at 5:32 pm

  5. Again, i don’t think english immersion will make all quebecois bilingual, it will just improve the quality of their englih..


    November 24, 2008 at 5:34 pm

  6. Some will say it is not government business to teach a second language to everybody, that remains an individual choice and responsibilty….so, it is an interesting question..


    November 24, 2008 at 5:38 pm

  7. AFG–The language that was *really* detested as the language of domination by black South Africans under the Apartheid system was Afrikaans, not English. The Soweto revolt of 1976 was precipitated by the introduction of widespread instruction in Afrikaans into the students’ curriculum. I do not think that English was nearly as hated there; indeed, I believe that English is often seen there as a useful means for communication between speakers of Nguni and Sotho-Tswana languages, and between each of them and English speakers.

    In this context I find it interesting that, the government website in South Africa, has no Afrikaans webpages even though something like 14 percent of the citizens of that country (mostly whites and mixed race people) speak that language at home. The site is all in English.

    I think that many black South Africans see English as a tool that helps them to learn about and to communicate with the wider world. What you seem to me to wish for is that more francos in Québec could see English in this way too. I suggest that an obstacle in the way of this hope is that many francos, especially souverainistes, have traditionally seen English as their “Afrikaans.”

    Antoine–your English is perfectly clear.


    November 24, 2008 at 5:43 pm

  8. I certainly agree with the idea of discussing, in English, the question of language inequalities, the injustices and grave problems they have caused and still cause today all over the world. This is a universal battle of vital importance, and native English speakers ought to be leading the movement, not perceive themselves as the victims of it.

    I certainly agree with the idea of non-native speakers of the English language making native English speakers aware of the nature of the growing problem of a single natural language superseding all others in trade, science, and entertainment. Using their words, making use of cultural references they can understand, is the way to do it. Gandhi did not convince most progressive elements of English society of the justice of his cause, by neglecting to speak the only language they understood.

    I certainly agree with putting into the minds of native English speakers, especially those of Quebec and the ROC, that “When we defend French at home, it is all languages of the world we defend against the hegemony of a single one.” — Pierre Bourgault (1934-2003), Allocution lors de la remise du Prix Georges-Émile-Lapalme, December 6, 1997 []

    But producing more bilingual francophones in Quebec, more than we already do now, has absolutely nothing to do with this, and is as likely to produce a positive effect on the situation of the French language in Quebec as pissing inside a sinking boat.

    Any political proposition even remotely suggesting that we improve the mandatory teaching of English as a second language in Quebec, rather than abolish it, is way way off the target. We have so many other more urgent priorities if we just want to avoid the public status of French to deteriorate, that is to say prevent the return of generalized institutional bilingualism in all sectors of life in Montreal.

    Institutional French cannot compete day to day with institutional English in Montreal. The fight is totally unequal. Even with a coherent and global language policy enforced by a sovereign Quebec State, freeing our collective from the negative effects our dependence on English has already occasioned will be difficult and take many generations.

    The power of attraction of French in Montreal must increase so as to become, as is the case with English at the moment, practically inescapable, and consequently lead non-native French speakers to depend on it. And this power of attraction will be there when it is in the habits of most Quebecers, especially natives of the French language, to make use of French only all the time, without really thinking about it, rather than switching to English when they are spoken to in a language all should know exists, possibly understand it to a certain extent for many, but not be able to really speak it and talk back.

    When we are there, the status of French will be that of English right now, the minority-majority relation will be reversed, and we will be able to focus on something else than what permanently stresses our differences and is a source of more division than union within our body politic.

    For the requirements of normal diplomatic and trade relations with our continental neighbours, I do not see how more than one Quebecer out of ten speaking English and French fluently should be required. And we already have a minority of native English speakers making up about 10% of us all. For our trade with South America, maybe 5% of us all should be fluent in Spanish.

    Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote

    November 24, 2008 at 7:05 pm

  9. Would Quebec stay French-speaking province? I guess no. 52% of Quebec French speaking students don’t finish the school. 100% of them do not speak English at all and cannot communicate with the the rest of the world (except France, part of Belgium and Africa), but no money to buy a ticket. One hour per week of English is not enough. Quebec and 101 created uneducated distinct nation. Marois for example being many times as a minister and doesn’t speak a word in English. Is that a sample of a good education? Funny! I guess she had realised a mistake. This means that educated Anglo or Allo speaking people will finally rule local economy as it was before. In English, of course. And AFG is absolutely right. French will stay as a heritage. Like Dutch or German languages in the USA, or Ukrainian in Canada. Japan is OK, but this a country. Philippine also. The never received 9 billions of equalisation dollars (please don’t go money) per year from the rich brother. They tried to survive by themselves. And let this writer Beaulieu to do what he wants with his useless and boring books.


    November 24, 2008 at 7:08 pm

  10. GECK:

    “100% of them do not speak English at all and cannot communicate with the the rest of the world”

    That sounds pretty terrible and goves the idea of closed minded and ingnorant Quebécois. But actually you could say the same about almost all people of the world: Italian, Greeks, Hungarian, Norvegian etc.

    “Quebec and 101 created uneducated distinct nation”

    French canadian of Quebec are more bilingual than English canadian of ROC. Talk about uneducated nation….


    November 24, 2008 at 7:17 pm

  11. Quebec is not a country.


    November 24, 2008 at 7:20 pm

  12. Quebec is a nation


    November 24, 2008 at 7:21 pm

  13. Nation of Quebecois


    November 24, 2008 at 7:21 pm

  14. By the way Geck, witch book from VLB have you read?


    November 24, 2008 at 7:24 pm

  15. A nation is a cultural and social community. Only. Quebec is a nation. But Quebec is also a part of Canada. Forever.


    November 24, 2008 at 7:30 pm

  16. Katmandoo, are you from Tibet?


    November 24, 2008 at 7:31 pm

  17. Geek, i am still waiting the title of the so-called boring book from VLB….pLEASE LET ME KNOW…


    November 24, 2008 at 7:59 pm

  18. I am wondering of your concerns about VLB? Are these only books you have read in your life?


    November 24, 2008 at 8:04 pm

  19. i studied in litterature at university du quebec a montreal…but you did not answer my question yet…
    i will answer for you. You never read any book from VLB. So what is your credibility?


    November 24, 2008 at 8:13 pm

  20. Gecck

    “A nation is a cultural and social community. Only. Quebec is a nation. But Quebec is also a part of Canada”

    As usual you make as much sense as a celery.

    Quebec is a nation and a community. It’s part of Canada. That could change. Canada is not “Eternal Rome”, it came to life, it will end as well.

    Be prepared for major changes in near future, as much political, than social and economical. ( oups! this last one began already )
    Nothing will stay as it is : Quebec, Canada, these political entities are but more or less usefull ways to organise ourselves. When things change, organizations change as well. Community stay though, as long as people live and speak the same language. What community has a strong enough identity to resist change to come?

    Some analysts pretend economical crisis will overcome USA next year: the actual richest states might be bankrupt and unable to pay for services. The population of poorer states won’t accept to pay for the bankrupt richest states.
    Some talk of civil war and may are preparing themselves to it, US army for instance ).

    So your Canada forever…put your tooth under your pillow and dream…..

    Oh and Geck, what VLB did you read?

    PS. I am a Canadian citizen and a Quebécois individual.


    November 24, 2008 at 10:59 pm

  21. GECK “Katmandoo, are you from Tibet?”

    No, I am not from Tibet but from Montreal, and what if I was, what would it change?

    And if you don’t like VLB you should read a little more, I recommend a good atlas for you…

    Katmandoo is in Nepal, not in Tibet.


    November 24, 2008 at 11:28 pm

  22. Yes, I red some boring and racist staff of Victor Levy Beaulieau like Negro queen in the Radio Canada. Guess due to his middle name he is not of French origin.


    November 25, 2008 at 10:57 am

  23. GECK
    “Yes, I red some boring and racist staff of Victor Levy Beaulieau like Negro queen in the Radio Canada. Guess due to his middle name he is not of French origin.”

    Good! Now you can read Monrealer writer Mordecai Richler and have a full portrait of Quebec racism.

    Oh and to make sure you’re not mixed up with your geography: Montreal is in north America….


    November 25, 2008 at 12:13 pm

  24. Actually I am not interested in these second-class writers. Maybe Mordechai is a little bit better… At least he doesn’t burn his books.


    November 25, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  25. “Guess due to his middle name he is not of French origin.”

    Although Lévy is actually a quite common surname in France (where it is usually borne by Jewish people), in VLB’s case, it is actually part of his given name, hence the hyphen in Victor-Lévy.

    Lévy (or the more common Lévis) is a semi-common given name for older French-Canadian men.


    November 25, 2008 at 12:51 pm

  26. The surname Levy comes from the biblical tribe of Levi, whose descendants the Levites had distinctive duties in the Temple period. Variations on this surname include Levin, Levine, Levitt and many others.


    November 25, 2008 at 1:06 pm

  27. little rob said:
    In this context I find it interesting that, the government website in South Africa, has no Afrikaans webpages even though something like 14 percent of the citizens of that country (mostly whites and mixed race people) speak that language at home. The site is all in English.

    This is not true under the services category they offer their service link page in all 10 offical languages of South Africa- here is the Afrikaans one-

    It is true that Afrikaans is the second most common mother tounge language in South Africa and indeed is the majority language for most of Western South Africa. Since it spoken by a lot of whites, Coloureds (not neccisarly mixed-races), Cape Malay and some blacks. English may be the fifth most common mother language and is the majority in not districts in South African and is only spoken as a first language by some whites and Indians. But it is the most commonly understood language and as such is used as a common language. Hence why it would be the default language for a government website.

    I agree with littlerob’s last paragraph though.


    November 25, 2008 at 10:12 pm

  28. “The language that was *really* detested as the language of domination by black South Africans under the Apartheid system was Afrikaans, not English.”

    Yes, Littlerob, Afrikaans was the really hated language in South Africa and English was the language used by different black communities to communicate with each other. It is also true that There is currently a great demand for education in English by blacks, despite their right to education in their mother tongue.

    The challenge is to give people access to English, which has real usefulness, in a way that does not systematically reduce the value of their own languages. Although I’m sure you didn’t mean any malice, as you usually have a very open mind, your last paragraph is a textbook example of the ‘stealth’ devaluation of languages other than English:

    “I think that many black South Africans see English as a tool that helps them to learn about and to communicate with the wider world. What you seem to me to wish for is that more francos in Québec could see English in this way too. I suggest that an obstacle in the way of this hope is that many francos, especially souverainistes, have traditionally seen English as their “Afrikaans.””

    What theis implies, time and time again, is that ‘native’, traditional, heritage, vernacular… non-English languages for short, are a causing strife and isolate people from the world, while English is the only language of open-mindedness, modernity and ‘the world’.

    Like I wrote, many teachers in South Africa are actively trying to combat this myth that continues to systematically devalue and mariginalise African languages, and their speakers, by teaching ‘multilingual awareness’ in English, for example.

    This is also what, in my opinion, Pauline Marois aims to do.


    November 26, 2008 at 12:03 pm

  29. Aiden–I stand corrected about the SA government website. I nevertheless sense that there is a belief now widely held among Afrikaans speakers of all races that the SA government has since 1994 been trying to marginalize their home language, and that this belief is caused in part by the government’s almost exclusive use of English in its dealings with the wider world.

    AFG–I was not trying to imply that English is the only language of “the world,” although I do suggest that when a speaker of isiXhosa or seSotho meets up with a speaker of Gujarati or Hausa or Javanese these days, their conversation is likely to be in English. In the same way, a conversation between a speaker of Kabyle and a speaker of kiKongo or Wolof is likely to be in French now.

    I do not know how people in the Free State react to having the value of seSotho taught to secondary school kids in English, but I suggest that it would go down very poorly among some circles in Québec if secondary school kids were taught in English about the value of French, or about Québec history for that matter.

    My point was that franco Québec has a lot of bad memories about English, just as black South Africa has a lot of bad memories about Afrikaans (although comparatively fewer about English). You are drawing a mistaken inference if you believe that what I wrote carries an implication that languages other than English are causing isolation. 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.


    November 26, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  30. Teaching subjects in a second language is a good idea if the students (and teachers) have a minimum knowledge of the second language. If they don’t, it just slows down the learning process unnecessarily.

    Some Quebec English school boards teach some courses in French. When I went through the system in the ’90s, Geogrraphy and History was optionally taught in French. I took these courses, and they weren’t great:
    – some of the courses were taught by anglophones with a knowledge of French no better than the students.
    – very few students were really bilingual, so the rate we learned at was slower than it should have been.
    – we learned a bunch of French terms but not their equivalents in English. Since I usually use English, I forgot almost all those terms very quickly.

    So if they are going to start teaching courses in English courses in French high schools, they should make sure that the teachers are properly qualified to teach in English. They should also make sure that students can understand a sufficient level of English before taking the course. The same goes for teaching courses in French at English high schools.


    November 27, 2008 at 10:08 am

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