In the year 2000, the Estates-General on the Situation and Future of the French Language in Quebec documented substantial progress in the vitality of French since the 1960s. The mood then was optimistic but it did not last long. Things have changed so much that the provincial and federal governments are now proposing a new round of interventions to promote the language of Molière. But the real issue remains how to convince more people to become fluent in French.
Knowing how to speak another language is a form of human capital that can increase an individual’s salary. In dollar terms, the data show, knowing a language produces an effect equivalent to an additional year of schooling. Whether to use one language rather than another and whether to acquire a language largely depend on this return for the individual.
This produces an unavoidable truth regarding the use of a language: If the members of a large linguistic group are highly educated and very productive, the economic returns from the mastery of their language will be greater than if the group is smaller and its members less educated.
The economic history of Quebec bears this out. Before 1940, francophones in the province were less educated than anglophones. Foreign capital coming to Quebec tended to be directed toward more educated and productive anglophone workers. This created a wage gap in favour of anglophones, which in turn encouraged immigrants to learn English before French. At the same time, non-immigrant francophones were inclined to want to learn English, whereas anglophones had less of an incentive to learn French.
Starting in 1940, however, francophone Quebecers began catching up in terms of education, thanks to a series of reforms that compelled staying in school longer. This favoured a shift of capital toward francophone workers and a reduction in the wage gap with anglophones. In 1941, a unilingual francophone worker earned on average 73 per cent of an anglophone worker’s salary. In 1971, this proportion had grown to 84 per cent. By the year 2000, the gap had disappeared entirely.
In fact, these numbers understate the pace of convergence experienced after the 1940s. The first cohort of francophones affected by the reforms of the 1940s actually showed no significant wage penalty relative to anglophones. However, these more educated cohorts only gradually entered the work force, so that there appears to be a delay in reaching parity. In truth, by 1978, there were no longer any significant differences between young francophones and young anglophones.
As was to be expected, the rate of bilingualism among anglophones and allophones also began to increase over this same period. Between 1951 and 1971, the use of French among non-francophones increased by 10 percentage points. And after 1971, these increases continued at more or less the same rate. While Bill 101 — the so-called charter of the French language in Quebec — had something to do with this, the catching-up had begun well before the bill’s adoption in 1977. In other words, the key to the growing demographic vitality of the French language was its increased economic vitality.
Today, while new measures are being considered, why not draw the appropriate lessons from the province’s past? Quebec’s educational system remains profoundly imperfect. Francophones still lag behind anglophones in terms of high school graduation rates, which in 2013 stood at 75 per cent for francophones versus 84.5 per cent for anglophones. Why not tackle this problem, which is important in its own right, and in doing so also reap the benefits of boosting the vitality of the French language?
A recent article in the Journal of Institutional Economics shows that reducing taxes and regulatory burdens not only makes educational investments more profitable on a personal level, but also makes such investments more accessible to people lower down on the income ladder. Such an approach would make Quebecers richer, which would in turn make it more attractive for immigrants to learn French in order to interact with these richer individuals.
Coercive measures have little chance of achieving the desired objective. It is the more roundabout but in the long run more secure path of greater economic vitality that will take us where we want to go.
Vincent Geloso is Associate Researcher at the MEI and the author of “Linguistic Vitality by Other Means.” The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.