French Homework: Petty Merchants at the Heart of the Linguistic Debate

Neglect from some dealers? Yeah. But also labor scarcity, the challenge of immigrants to integrate, and the indifference of some French-speaking clients are all factors involved when it comes to French in a small business in Montreal or elsewhere in Quebec.

On the second floor of an old commercial building a stone’s throw from the Concordia University campus and Saint Catherine West Street in Montreal, the Ideal Nature Salon brims with whisper conversations in foreign languages. However, the owner instantly turns to French when he hears it.

In his late 30s, tall and masked, as he should be, Jinhua Hu was born in China, learned his trade in Toronto and named himself Carlos to make it easy. Stubborn, withstands ease of switching to English when searching for a word. “People often find my French is not very good and I switch to English.”

In business for ten years, he just opened a second salon in LaSalle and wants to get more French speaking clients. Because there are few employees who speak French, last year I signed up for the Franchise Grant Assistance Program from the Montreal Chamber of Commerce (CCMM).

Having already reached more than 900 dealers in Montreal, the region and even Sherbrooke, “J’apprends le français” allowed him to receive, every week, for two hours, a work visit from Camille, who was helping him. Their ability to communicate and work in French, taking into account the reality of their business. The program hosted university students studying French, literature, and linguistics, and the program came with stickers and buttons inviting clients to encourage traders by speaking to them (slowly) in French.

“It’s a very good and very useful program,” Carlos recalls with regret, “but there was a pandemic.” He had to nearly complete his training course and now hopes to be able to re-enroll in the program when health rules allow.

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An overrated problem

“This is one of the most satisfying projects of my career,” says Wim Remison, professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Sherbrooke and in charge of the program area, whose renewal will require the green light and Quebec funds.

Not only does education there fit the needs and realities of immigrants who run small businesses, he says, “but it also sends a strong signal to other members of their community about the importance of the French language” more to advocate for customer participation. We mobilize people around the language rather than opposing them. “

Small merchants, like Carlos, often find themselves at the forefront when it comes to the advancement or decline of the French language in Quebec. From display language to discussion of “hello-“Hi Instead, they are presented as metrics for the situation and one of the major irritants.

François Vincent does not hide his impression that the difficulty in getting French service in Quebec, even in Montreal, is greatly overrated. The Vice President of Quebec at the Canadian Association of Independent Business sees this as evidence Latest surveys from Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) Those who reported that the use of French as a service language remained stable in Quebec from 2010 to 2017, at around 96%, including the island of Montreal where this percentage ranges from 93% to 99%. “Let’s say you can still see the glass is half empty, but still,” he said while roaring.

However, OQLF surveys also indicate that the number of Quebecers in the Greater Montreal area who say they have served at least once in a language other than French in the past six months has doubled between 2010 and 2018, from 25% to 50%. This may be partly due to the fact that the percentage of clients who “ask” always or most of the time “that the service be provided in French has decreased from 31% to 20%, and that those who” ask for it never “ask for it. »It grew from 34% to 43%. The proportion of Montreal’s French-speaking population who demand service in their language has been more stable during these years, at just under 60%.

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Migrants and others

The new general manager of Conseil québécois du Commerce de Commerce, Jean Jay Side, said the rhetorical stories reported in the media “seem to me very much the reality of Montreal, and even the downtown area and its own reality”. This, he says, is due, in particular, to the evolving population of Montreal, to the large number of international students as well as the dearth of the workforce that sometimes prevents merchants from finding themselves. They demand the level of French language proficiency for these students.

In Quebec, as it is anywhere in the world, it is normal and even necessary for the majority of the population to be presented in their own language, believes Michele LeBlanc, President and CEO of CCMM. But naturally we also offer English where customers and customs justify it – as in West Island, Eastern Townships, or Gatineau – and where the number of foreign visitors demands.

Michel LeBlanc also distinguishes between those immigrants who carry their small business at arm’s length and struggle to find a moment to improve their French products and those big brands that arrive “without worrying about local realities”. The former should accompany and help integrate better into the French-speaking majority, while the others simply deserve to be called upon to the system. “Frankly, I do not feel pity for them if they are subsequently subjected to the task by the media and the population,” he said without mentioning Asma.

In some cases, the lesson appears to have paid off. He was put on the hot seat, four years ago, when a company director nearly apologized for saying a few words in French when they opened, the Adidas store on Sainte-Catherine Street West offered service in French, clean Tuesday afternoon. Criticized, too, for launching almost exclusively in English this fall, the first Japanese chain Uniqlo clothing store also seemed to rectify the situation, with half a dozen employees randomly approaching that day, all of whom spoke French.

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The role of customers

Jean-Guy Cotet insists that merchants, whether big or small, have no interest in erasing the French-speaking face of Quebec to please foreign clients. “This difference is not an obstacle, quite the opposite. This is what defines us in North America. This is one of our great assets.”

Which brings us back to the Quebec agents and their collective responsibility, as Michel LeBlanc concludes. “In this debate, we often attack traders or governments, but traders strive first and foremost to please their customers. From the moment French-speaking Quebecers use the French language, this sends the traders a very strong message that the development of their business depends on their mastery of the language. . “

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