2011/12/11

French in the workplace

Many flagship organizations in Montréal have been reported as hiring English-speaking unilingual managers and not leaving enough room for French. Yeah... I know... old news... still, discussions around these reports are missing the point.

Most of these discussions argued that English is the language of business and the way of globalization; there's no doubt about it. Some also suggested that the Québécois shouldn't shy away from learning a second language. A recent poll suggests that the majority agrees, 62% for English-speaking Québécois and 56% for French speakers.

My own personal experience with bilingualism at work is a positive one. Everyone chips in using the language they feel most comfortable with. A French-speaker didn't get some of the English words that were spoken?... someone translates. An English-speaker didn't get some of the French words that were spoken?... somebody else translates. No muss, no fuss, all is fine and everybody learns. However, things don't always work as easily.

I was chatting with an English-speaking colleague recently who didn't understand this concern about not having enough French in the workplace. She observed that the majority of discussions were held in French. She was right. I told her that the issue wasn't being conveyed properly. "It's not about not having enough room for French", I told her. "It's about shutting out French-speaking unilinguals." She looked at me puzzled.

I emphasized that, although I did over 90% of my work in French, I could as easily do 100% of it in English. She agreed. When I asked her if it were possible for me to do 100% of it in French, she wouldn't answer. Had we been talking about a job working with the public or involving international trade, reasonable knowledge of English would be a given. But this is an ordinary administrative job involving other Québécois in Montréal.

Recent poll results published by La Presse [Google translation] conclude that the Québécois are divided regarding the obligation of speaking French in the workplace. The poll is asking the wrong question.

Many argue that a qualified worker mustn't be discriminated if he doesn't speak the language of the majority. So be it... now... does it make it OK to discriminate someone who only speaks the language of the majority?

6 comments:

CK said...

"...does it make it OK to discriminate someone who only speaks the language of the majority?"

I assume we're talking about Montreal.

A loaded question and a good one with no one size fits all answer. The shorter answer would be that would depend on the nature of the work and what kind of company/organization it is.

If one is working in a back office and has little to no contact with the public at large, or the clientele served by this particular company/organization is mostly Francophone, I'd say there shouldn't really be a problem.

However, where I work, we serve an Anglophone clientele--it's our mandate--so yes, our staffers should be able to communicate effectively in English. However, given that we are also a government agency, we are also required to speak and write in French--as it should be.

Up until not long ago, I thought we've reached linguistic peace. As an Anglophone Montrealer, I have long accepted that French was the language of Quebec. Thought most Anglos left here felt the same. At least, the more progressive ones.

I always tell Anglos here who complain that at least they can still receive services in their mother tongue a lot easier than a Francophone can in say, Alberta or BC, or even Toronto.

Raman said...

Good of you to point this out.

I often recall an example about my girlfriend; because that's the first time I realized all this.

She's from around Sherbrooke. She'd learned English in school, but didn't speak it fluently at all when she arrived in Montreal, a bit over a decade ago.

At all the jobs she applied for, she was systematically told that she would need to speak English. Now, we're talking waitress jobs in local pubs and restaurants...
On the other hand, a couple blocks down from where she finally got hired, at Casa del Popolo, every time I went I was greeted by a unilingual English-speaking barmaid, who had a hard time understanding that I wanted "une pinte de rousse"...

Poor, poor discriminated Montreal anglos...

edgy said...

I don't know. I wouldn't like to see a unilingual Anglophone or Francophone discriminated against but that's almost beside the point. The reality of the situation is that Quebec is a Francophone province with a large bilingual city that serves as its economic engine. That's why Rahman's girlfriend is told she has to speak English to be a waitress; that's why I'm asked how my French is when interviewing for a job that doesn't require any knowledge of it. Mme Marois can jump up and down all she wants, but the social reality of Quebec will resist artificial change and with 70 percent of Quebecers saying, essentially, that they want Montreal to be a bilingual city, I don't see why anyone is really wringing their hands over the situation. As you point out, most of the time "on the ground" things work but with these nonsensical "Anglo-hunting" expeditions that have been so prominent as if late, I fear we're headed in the wrong direction.

Michel Bolduc said...

Edgy,

For businesses to be efficient, people have to communicate with one another. Two unilinguals speaking a different language can't do that effectively. This isn't about "Anglo-hunting". People are wringing their hands over the situation because it's detrimental to the majority of Québécois.

Raman said...

Edgy,

How about the Journal de Montréal reporter who went applying for jobs in several businesses, in and around Montreal, specifying that she didn't speak any French, and still got hired ? How about the bosses who told her not to worry about it, that only asshole customers would whine and complain, but that they would speak English anyway ?

How does that compare to my girlfriend's experience; my girlfriend and how many other francophones ?

Ian Gillman said...

The nut of this issue is this: Quebecois are terrified of losing their language by cultural assimilation. And since an ever-increasing percentage of the population of Quebec, and Montreal in particular, comes from immigrant populations the future of the French language is in their collective hands unless regulated. Hence, Bill 101, OLF, etc.

I sympathize. I'm bilingual, and so are my kids. I will never loose my French and I don't think my kids will either. But as Montreal becomes more and more English-speaking, will subsequent generations of immigrants see the value in learning French?

I still think that the single thing that Quebecois can do to stem this is to proudly and politely/respectfully insist on being served in French by escalating to managers/supervisors/owners or stop supporting those businesses. Social media is a powerful tool that could be leveraged to achieve this. This would be more effective than any law could ever be and save taxpayers money in the process.