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Sociolingüística internacional

School language and demosociolinguistic context in francophone children and teenagers in Canada outside of Quebec: a warning for the Catalan situation,
by Albert Bastardas i Boada


The self-government of schools is what makes the experience of Francophone Canadians outside of Quebec particularly interesting for sociolinguistic theory; it provides a clearer perspective of the factors and dynamics at play in the relationships between school language policy, demographic and sociolinguistic conditions and language uses in diverse social situations.

2.2. Fundamental variables

The results of school language policy must never be evaluated in isolation, but always in their relationship with the demographic and sociolinguistic context of the policy in question. Bearing this in mind, a fundamental factor in this type of situation – as occurs in other cases of minoritization studied – is the sociolinguistic consequence of inter-ethnic marriage, particularly where group barriers are removed to a great extent and the number of such family units is therefore high and rising.

In Alberta and British Colombia for example, English is the predominant language in the home for the vast majority of mixed marriages, both between the couple themselves and between parents and children, almost always to the detriment of French. Since English is the code that is best shared between the couple and since it is used more in the general social environment, in practice, it becomes the only domestic language, because the English-speaking partner very often has difficulties even understanding French.

There are large numbers of this type of couple: in Alberta, for example, three quarters of the partners of French-speakers are Anglophones. The children of these inter-ethnic couples often attend the theoretically Francophone schools so as not to ‘lose’ their French. As a result, these centres are dominated by individuals whose L1 is English, despite having one parent from each language group. In practice therefore, for Francophone parents, these self-governed schools must act not simply as 'maintainers', but also bilingualizers – both at written and oral level – for this group of individuals whom the law recognizes as 'Francophone', although their L1 is not French.

This population of mixed origin that functions in English will create other sociolinguistic effects. The vast majority of individuals that could have French as their L1 are also functional bilinguals in English due to the pressure of their social context. As a result, English is used more than French in informal, interpersonal and everyday communication between pupils at these Francophone schools. English is unconsciously and mechanically adopted as the 'natural' language for personal functions, whereas French is reserved for more formal and institutionalized functions (vehicular language of classes, addressing teachers, writing up projects, etc.).

The issue, therefore, is not whether bilingualization in French has been successful, but rather that the dynamics of the situation cause English, rather than the language of ascendants, to be more commonly used in everyday interpersonal functions, even in ‘intragroup’ relations between individuals of Francophone origin (either entirely or partly). Clearly, this does not imply a positive outcome for maintenance of the Francophone minority in Western Canada, because it means that its first-language speakers are gradually diminishing and that this group is therefore becoming increasingly dependent on the education system to conserve the language. This latter is not the same as intergenerational transmission of language varieties, which 'naturally' ensures the nativization – and hence historical reproduction – of language groups.

2.3. Causes of the sociolinguistic evolution

We need to take a close look at how demographic and sociolinguistic factors initiate this perverse dynamic causing the language group and use of French, in this case, to dwindle. It is not so much the idea that education is a ‘failure’ as the difficulty in altering sociolinguistic dynamics activated by demographic and sociological factors. Very often, the Francophone community is mixed with the English-speaking population or individuals of other origins (in large cities, for example). As the former is a smaller community, its members are more prone to find a partner from outside rather than within their own community. It is also much more likely for French speakers to function communicatively in English than for English speakers to do so in French.

In the face of these dynamics, how far can education influence the aim of making French, at the very least, the most commonly-used code between individuals of purely French or mixed origin? What factors come into play here?

In the same way that macrosociolinguistic factors are important for a global understanding of evolutionary dynamics, microsociolinguistic factors are important for understanding individual linguistic behaviours. Why do pupils at these schools not use French with each other in non-formal functions, when French is the habitual vehicular language of these schools and their aim is clearly to promote the culture and identity of French-speakers?

To understand this phenomenon, we probably need to take into account two fundamental factors: firstly, individual language competence when the class-group is formed and, secondly, the tendency to establish the regular nature of interpersonal language behaviour in terms of person-language, which notably favours the maintenance of the linguistic choice made at the start of the relationship with a given interlocutor.


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