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The Canadian flag flies in front of the Peace Tower at the Canadian parliament.
According to a recent survey of public servants by the Commissioner of Official Languages, more than 44 per cent of French-speakers are uncomfortable using French at work. CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A ‘French malaise’ is eroding bilingualism in Canada’s public service

There will always be a historical distinction between anglophones and francophones in Canada, but this cultural and linguistic diversity should contribute to a society based on equity and inclusion. For this to happen, proficiency in both official languages is important.

According to a recent survey by the Commissioner of Official Languages of 10,828 federal public servants in five administrative regions (Ottawa-Gatineau, New Brunswick and bilingual regions in Quebec and Ontario), more than 44 per cent of francophones feel uncomfortable using French at work, while only 11 per cent of francophones feel the same way about using English at work.

Of those 44 per cent of francophones, more than 37 per cent feel uncomfortable using French at work during meetings. While we might assume this discomfort is the product of linguistic insecurity related to speaking French in a predominantly English environment, it actually has more to do with organizational difficulties that make it difficult to work in French.

Earlier this week, Minister of Official Languages Melanie Joly tabled a report that would ultimately overhaul the Official Languages Act to “counter and remedy” the decline of French in Canada.

Fear of being misunderstood

Just under 90 per cent of francophones cited their anglophone colleagues’ lack of fluency as the main reason they avoided speaking French. Thirty eight per cent stated that French is not often used in their workplace. However, 32 per cent of respondents also expressed a fear of being perceived as “troublemakers” if they spoke French. In addition, 19 per cent of French-speakers surveyed were reluctant to ask for supervision in French. The most cited reasons were that their supervisor is not comfortable enough speaking French, or they fear being perceived as a troublemaker, or they do not want to disturb their supervisor.

In short, francophone public servants feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in French because their anglophone colleagues are not sufficiently fluent in the language. Some of them fear that if they “dare” to ask for supervision in French or take the risk of expressing themselves in their first language during meetings, their colleagues will label them troublemakers.

The survey does not explain why such a large number of French-speakers experience these feelings in a so-called bilingual workplace. Is it because they have been considered troublemakers at some point? Or have they simply internalized the fact that the French language does not have the same status as English in Canada, meaning it is better to avoid “getting into trouble” by working in English?

Insecurity among anglophones

This difficult linguistic context raises issues that go beyond the unequal balance of power between Canada’s two official languages.

More than 39 per cent of anglophones surveyed said they do not feel comfortable expressing themselves in French. Around 70 per cent cited a lack of practice speaking French while 61 per cent feared having their accent and mistakes judged and corrected. Forty two per cent also reported feeling embarrassed when their francophone colleagues reply in English after they have tried to express themselves in French.

The reasons cited show that the anglophones surveyed also experience linguistic insecurity when using French. Linguistic insecurity affects language practices and “influences the choice to speak one language rather than another or one variety (different accent) rather than another, as well as the decision to either speak or to remain silent.”

The embarrassment felt by English speakers when speaking in French in front of their co-workers is caused by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. A person may think their French is not good enough, or fear that others will make offensive remarks about their accent or the quality of their French. While lack of practice in French feeds the linguistic insecurity of English speakers, this linguistic insecurity, in turn, leads them to use more avoidance strategies to keep from practising French.

A reversed balance of power

It can be difficult for anglophones to practise their French if francophone colleagues judge, correct or ignore their efforts and carry on the discussion in English. The balance of power between the two language groups seems to be reversed here. The following situation might exist in the public service: a Francophone may hesitate to speak French because they fear being considered a troublemaker, yet they will not hesitate to correct an Anglophone colleague who tries to speak French. So, how should this problem be considered and what can be done to overcome it?

There seems to be a general uneasiness or “malaise” about French among both francophones and anglophone public servants in administrative regions where bilingualism is required. In defence of anglophones who want to improve their competence in French, but who are experiencing linguistic insecurity, “French is a very prescriptive language, governed by the Académie française, which has established the norms of standard French and dictates that anything deviating from the norm can be considered less legitimate,” Lisa Savoie-Ferron, a graduate student in sociolinguistics at the Univesity of Ottawa told Radio-Canada.

While French-language training and opportunities to practise French must be better harmonized in a work context where English is predominant, francophones also have a part to play in being more inclusive when it comes to French-language learners. In other words, anglophones who want to learn and practise French must be able to do so without running the risk of discrimination. The same must be true for francophones who want to communicate and work in French.

Languages reflect the identity of a people. They are an integral part of cultures,” wrote Trang T.H. Phan, who studies globalization and “la francophonie.” Official languages and their respective cultures define Canada. Linguistic diversity in Canada, starting with a better recognition of French, should not implicitly or explicitly view the “francophone difference” as a problem.

The freedom to speak French in the public service must be a recognized and applicable right that is exercised without fear of being considered a French-speaking rebel. Ultimately, the goal must be to promote the use of French in a context where English occupies a very important place in the Canadian public service. The federal government’s decision to update the Official Languages Act is an important and positive announcement.

This article was originally published in French

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