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The following are a few letters in response to "English Is Not the National Language," my May 23 column. More will be posted as time permits. Join the fun and comment in the comment section at the foot of this

I am writting to you from Montréal regarding your piece that was puplished on May the 23th. Since I am a french canadian , I appologise for my mangeling of the english language that might occure in this letter. I can only do my best !

You probaly guest it , I want to adress what you wrote about the language situation in my province. It seems the last time you visited was 30 years ago ! Let me point a few thintgs you got wrong , or at least did not understand .

You say: "Thirty years ago Quebec banned all languages but French on commercial signs, including "welcome" and "Merry Christmas." It required French to be the working language of any business with 50 employees or more, which drove 130 corporations out of the province in a few years. It established a language police and gave it power to levy stiff fines and seize lawbreaking evidence. As The New York Times reported in 1984, that would eventually entail "the taping over the English word 'street' on signs; the seizure of 10,000 'Dunkin' Donuts' bags in 1977, and the prosecution of an English hospital last year for not providing a patient the opportunity 'to die in French.' " As a result, the only thing dying a French death is French Canadian -- a language so stunted that hearing it is like listening to Beethoven set to Muzak. "

The law that was passed 30 years ago was Bill 101 that tried to make french the unifying language of the province , and permit it's citizen to work and live in there own language. 30 years ago , you could be refused a job as atrash collector because you could not speak english. You could go to Eaton's ( a big store like Macy's) in downtown Montréal and look for half an hour before you would find someone who spoke french. This bill was not perfect , but established a lot of things, one being that you could not being discriminated for speaking the language of the majority.

This bill evolved. It is now ( and has been for a few years already) to post signs in french and another language , as long as French is the  predominat language: so "Merry Chrismas " cans be written in congolese , mandarin , portugese and even english, everywhere in the province. Immaigrants must send there childreen to french school , but english as a second language is learned starting in the fourth grade by every childreen in the province.

Cities where english is spoken as a firstlanguage by more than a certain percentage ( I think it is 60%) of the population is considered bilingual city and can post sighns in both language.

Dying in dignity , with people understanding your need should not be an option , in any language.

In Montréal , the largest french city after Paris , there are just as many english universities as there are french. More movie theaters show movies in english than in french and, with cable there more english peaking tv and radio station  than there are french ones. One can still live most of his/her life without speaking french.

Lastly , it is not because you dont understand french from Québec that it is not a beautifull language. The many , many poetes , songwritters , playwritter and artist that use this language everyday would certainly not agree that there languge is Muzak. French in Québec is alive , despite the fact that only 7 millions of us live among the millions of english speakers in North America. Our way of protecting our language might not have been perfect , but it worked , with a lot efforts from both the french speaking populatin and our anglo citizen .

If you are ever around , it will be a pleasure to show you around my beautifull , welcoming and tolerant city .

Have a good day!

Antoine Gélinas

I do English editing for a living, so I'll have to be biased on this issue. I support higher standards of writing English like those
advocated by English teachers when the situation requires it. Depending on whom I'm writing to by e-mail, I can go casual or
write in the best English that I can muster. I don't like it when people don't capitalize or write like they're sending SMS.
On the other hand, you've probably read my DV articles by now. I've deliberately made them more "proletarian" by limiting the scholarly content. I figure that as long as your points are easy to understand, your writings take care of themselves. Even though I come from an academic background, I am sometimes turned off towards those who always advocate scholarly writing. Who made them judge, jury, and executioner? Mark Twain said, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water." Well, that's what I try to make my writings - like water.

If our government wants to impose English as the official national language, it should start making sure that its own citizens become proficient in it first. Quite a number of them are functionally illiterate. Let's start with our president.

Chohong Choi
Hong Kong

Yes, we are SO lucky to live in the U.S. melting pot of words.

Modern Ben Franklins forget that we survived the fear some of our forebears felt as their culture shifted to accommodate the flood of EU and Irish immigrants at the turn of the century, then the Blacks who 'immigrated' into the mainstream after the 1965 Civil Rights Act. In those cases, both sides moved partway toward the center to accommodate the other, and we are all better off than before.

John Chase
Palm Harbor

"......the taping over the English word 'street' on signs; the seizure of 10,000 'Dunkin' Donuts' bags in 1977, and the prosecution of an English hospital last year for not providing a patient the opportunity 'to die in French.' " As a result, the only thing dying a French death is French Canadian -- a language so stunted that hearing it is like listening to Beethoven set to Muzak........."

Gross exaggeration, Pierre! But what does the News York Times get right these days, anyway? If you should come to Quebec today - Montreal for example, you would find a thriving society, enriched by both languages (on many signs too), in which the conflict of the past has been largely overcome by toleran ce and understanding. Although the system is still not perfect, and some rough edges remain, most of our kids learn both languages at an early age - and travel at home and abroad with that much more confidence and enthusiasm. They say bilingual old-timers are happier and healthier too! Salut!

Pete Kirby

Pierre's reply:

Well, that piece from the Times is from back when it had a reputation for accuracy (my friendly correspondants Qebecois are ripping my eyes out, but not disputing the facts). I should also note that my take on the subject isn't a zero-sum game. If I had the means and the employment, Montreal would be one of the few cities on the North American continent where I'd love to live (Toronto and San Francisco come to mind, as does Vancouver, though that last one is only from hearsay). I think the idea of controlling language is inherently silly, whether it's French or some of those endangered and disappearing Papuan languages. That doesn't mean I have anything against the bi- or trilingualism of any culture. Au contraire. I'm a native French speaker myself, tri-lingual, always mourning the fact that Americans, for all the beauty of their language, can't see past their goddamn nose to embrace other languages without feeling thereatened. That was also the thrust of t he piece. The defense-of-English argument as it's being played out here has nothing to do with preserving the language, considering that as the dominant language on the planet English is the last thing that needs preserving. It had everything to do with neo-imperial superiority, and using the language to shout that superiority. The irony is that once cultures become so insecure as to feel the need to do that sort of thing, as have, as do, Quebequois types and their tricolore ancestors on the old continent,  cultures plant the seed of their own decay--again, because cultural fences are by definition the beginning of a closing off disguised as preservation.

Being from Québec, I would like to offer a little background on your May 23rd piece about language (Culture at Best When Language Like English Sops Foreign Words).

True, the bill introduced and passed in 1977 by the Parti Quebecois banning the use of english on outdoor signs and making french the official language in the workplace, was, to put it mildly, a tad harsh. The language police has had, over the years, overzealous and borderline fascistic elements within its ranks. However, until that bill, business had always been conducted in english, thus barring a lot of people, for whom french was the mother tongue, from aspiring to higher levels in businesses (mostly owned by english-speaking people). Considering that french-speaking citizens represent an overwhelming majority of the population of Québec, it only made sense that the playing field be somewhat leveled.

Back in the 60’s and the early 70’s, it was impossible, yes impossible, to be served in french at any major department store or hotel in Montreal. Everything was in english. Just imagine if you went to say, a 7-11 in Daytona (wrong example!), no better yet, you went to Sears or your local Days Inn and got served only in Spanish, with the owner refusing to serve you in english. You’d be a little miffed, I’m sure. As was the case here in the 70’s.

French (whether it be spoken à la Parisienne or as you eloquently put it, “stunted” (hey, I know it’s not Molière, but Brooklynese or the southern drawl ain’t exactly Shakespeare pal!;)) has been around these parts for almost 400 years. I don’t think it is in as much jeopardy as it was in the 70’s. Some amendments to the law have been passed, softening it a bit (for example, english signs are now tolerated as long as they are in smaller letters than their french equivalent). I know, it’s not much. The english speaking community sometimes feels like second class citizens, which they are not. In an ideal world, the whole province would be bilingual. Just like Pierre Trudeau wanted it to be in the 70’s. Just I would like it to be today.

By the way, are you getting sick of our snowbirds? You know what, you can keep ‘em!

Au plaisir de vous lire sur Common Dreams!

Daniel Provost
Montréal, Québec

What a poor and ill researched article Mr Tristam. Protecting one's language and culture has nothing to do with racism and if you had researched and dug a little deeper for your article, you would have discovered that as much as Canada fought Québec's Bill 101 back in the 70's, today they appropriate themselves with the fact that due to their kind-hearted largesse about Québec's language law, Québécers have been able to retain their 'wonderful' french culture and language. Hypocrisy is not solely America's badge of honor to wear as you can see.

As for this American law making English the language of choice for the land, then yes it may then be called 'racist' as there is no proven cause to fear for the disappearance of the English language from the face of North America anytime soon. This law is a slap in the face to all spanish speaking people inhabiting the United States and a clear message sent that full integration and the loss of one's original culture are sine qua non conditions to become a 'real' American.

As concerns Québec's french language, you really are out of your racist mind to believe this old myth of a stunted language, once propagated by Canadians in order to better debase its French population seen as second class citizens (if they are second class, so should their language be). Only a few weeks ago, a visiting French government minister praised Québec's French for its richness, its ability to adapt in a newly technological world and added that French people (the 'real' ones from France maybe ? ) should take example on Québécers. Strangely enough, Québec receives thousands of French immigrants every year and none seem to have any problems adapting or understanding Québec's 17th century accents and intonations. This may explain why so many Québec artists have been filling up France's cultural life these past few decades. Everyone loves to not understand what's being said I guess. Your article starts out with a very racist commentary about a four centuries old culture on the North American continent and it continues on to better expose America's well known racist attitude towards anything that isn't American.

A racist disagreeing with another racist. Not your best article Monsieur Tristam, the worst I've read in fact. Now please excuse my poor English response to your article, translated as best I could from my very own stunted french knowledge.

Michèle Gagné
Sherbrooke, Québec

How typically American is your ignorance of other societies. And other tongues as well. It is quite evident from your latest editorial about english being voted U.S official language, that you don't know much 1) about Quebec 2) about any foreign language. How american! What you say about the richness of english - specially american english - could also be said without restriction about any of the other great languages of the world: spanish, french, chinese, arabic, russian... America does not have a monopoly on language enrichment and sophistication. Already in the US, more than 25 states have enacted laws making english their sole official language to counter the rise of spanish as a first language, and spanglish as a second. We Quebecers do not see anything wrong with that. We had to do the same to protect our identity when Bill 101 was enacted in the mid 70's. French being then in the same predicament English is now in some southern states of your country. But, we did implement this law with one big difference. Even though French is the official language of Quebec all laws are enacted in both languages. And so are all the Québec government dealings and communications with its citizens. Go and check *_, _*the official site of the Québec governement Check on top of the page in the right hand corner and you'll see one tab english and another espanol. For your information, french-canadian is moribund in Québec, but french is doing fine, as well as english by the way. As a matter of fact more than 40% of french speaking quebecers are bilingual, while more than 50% of anglophone quebecers are. Dont' worry, even if they often don't see things from the same perspective, both english and french quebecers get along fine. Maybe you should pay us a visit? Who knows? With climate warming coming up, you may one day be compelled to immigrate to our cooler country...and be forced-fed french down your throat. How french!

Jean-Claude Rannaud

Your article regarding English as the official language for America reinforced my feelings of dismay at this type of action.  It appears to be very rude, at best, to all other countries, and is a particular slap in the face to Mexico.  It is unbelievable how every other country on earth has contributed to the richness of the U.S., yet ugly Americans can't see anything beyond their own noses.  I really just want to move to Canada or somewhere else - I don't want to be associated with such a mean-spirited country!
         The entire immigration question seems to bring out the most selfish attitudes in our people.  America is supposed to be better than that; I truly believe it once was. 
         Besides everything else, we "borrowed" the English language from England.  Somehow you don't hear any mention of repaying them, or giving them any credit.  What's wrong with these people?
Lily Maskew

Pittsburgh, PA




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