By Cyrielle Ouedraogo
Since I presently write and study entirely in English, people are often surprised when I remind them that my mother tongue is French; the colonizer French of West Africa that my parents use at home and for work. Like many people my age, I view multilingualism as an asset, a tool for understanding the increasingly interconnected world that we are living in (and shaping through this connectivity). I subscribe to the idea that more is always better when it comes to language, and that the knowledge of one does not decrease the value of another. I am not, however, so blinded by my own optimism as to ignore the fierce and often tiresome debate that has rattled the province of Quebec since its beginnings; I am aware that for many, multilingualism resembles a threat to the authentic culture of Quebec.
My initial response is this: what is the authentic culture of Quebec? Whose cultural heritage is at risk of being erased by another? I find the irony of the debate quite poignant, especially the ignorant (or perhaps willful?) blindness of those affirming that French is this land’s mother tongue. The French that supplanted this region’s Indigenous languages is beautiful, but its existence in North America today is a product of colonialism. We are quick to forget how the French language got its own firm footing in Quebec. It is true that English (arguably) exercises the same postcolonial pressure on French now, that French has exercised and contwinues to exercise on Indigenous languages, but selective acknowledgement of the destructive power of colonialism speaks to a sense of misplaced superiority.
Many people engaged in this debate do not value Indigenous languages in the same way that they value “Western” tongues. The markers that modernity provides for regulating the usage of a language or awarding prizes to its most prominent authors are deeply ingrained in colonial history. Where France has its Sorbonne, and England has its Oxford, differing world views and a history halted by colonization stopped many cultures from ever developing the institutions now deemed “prestigious” authorities on language. If these institutions are benchmarks for why languages deserve conservational efforts, then colonialism once again benefits the colonizer and further handicaps the colonized.
It also quite amuses me when Quebecois French speakers affirm that the French language is dying because it is (arguably) threatened on this side of the globe. Often, we forget that Canada is not the only place in which colonial French has taken root. There are 21 African countries in which French is the official language; and it’s spoken in just under thirty. Why, then, do we assume that French is dying? Is it because the French of others is unsuitable to our own view of it as a dignified language? The world’s Francophonie is alive, and quite well, but for some the bilingualism of Quebec’s teens is the final nail in its coffin.
If we wish to talk of languages that are well and truly dying, we can turn to the Indigenous languages of Canada, but also to the hundreds of languages that were squashed or replaced during the golden age of European colonialism. The sentiment of having been wronged by a colonizing force is one I understand francophones can feel, but feeling it without recognizing the impact of French colonization on other languages is a symptom of either willful ignorance or concealed linguistic elitism.