Who needs language laws?

New language laws in Canada and the UK raise questions about what language laws really protect


Last weekend, thousands of people assembled in Belfast, Northern Ireland to march through the regional capital in protest. The red-clad crowd numbered around 10,000 — an order of magnitude more than the number that had gathered in Belfast to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just a few months prior. But war wasn’t on their minds — nor was police violence, climate change, energy prices, inflation, or any of the other headline-grabbing issues that have recently sparked large protests in other major cities.

The Belfast protesters filled the streets over something else entirely: language.

On Tuesday, May 24, the UK put forward a new bill that would finally make good on the country’s promise to grant the Irish language official status. The new bill, which has not passed yet, would come after years of delayed promises and much protest in Northern Ireland, where 2011 census counts (the most recent) report that about 3.7% of the population speak Irish fluently.

On the same day the UK’s new bill was proposed, another language law made headlines across the Atlantic. Quebec passed the controversial Bill 96, which legal limits on the use of languages other than French in much of public life.

While the proposed UK bill seems to have been mostly positively received, Bill 96 met sharp criticism even before it passed. Large protests against it took place in Montreal in anticipation of the bill’s adoption, and Canada’s federal government seems to be contemplating a legal challenge to Quebec’s new French law already. More protests are planned. Indigenous activists have criticized the bill as potentially harmful to their communities, and to indigenous languages.

The coincidence of these two new language laws invites comparison, and at first glance they’re quite similar. Both bills intend to protect regional languages within larger Anglophone countries against English, a language with a lot of power and draw. But there are significant differences between the UK’s proposed Irish law and Quebec’s Bill 96, too — differences that raise questions about the purpose of legislating language at all.

Making Irish official

If passed, the UK’s new Irish language law will recognize Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland, where it was the majority language centuries ago. As of 2011, about 3.7% of people in Northern Ireland could speak, read, and write in Irish.

The Irish language already enjoys some special privileges under the 1992 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The new law will go further, explicitly allowing the use of Irish in courts, establishing a new Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to promote cultural pluralism in Northern Ireland, and creating new posts for commissioners dedicated to the Irish and Ulster Scots languages.

The new law grew out of a messy political situation. It was promised a few years ago as part of a political deal to re-establish the executive government of Northern Ireland after a scandal resulted in its collapse in 2017. The bill was a sticking point in negotiations to re-establish the government, which took years to hash out. Protests from activist groups gained steam recently after it looked like the bill would be delayed again. It’s a long story, but you can read about it here, here, and of course, on Wikipedia.

This possible new Irish-language law comes after the UK established official recognition in 2011 for Welsh, another minority Celtic tongue. It also establishes protections for Ulster-Scots, another minority language in Northern Ireland, though the head of the Ulster Scots Language Society seemed skeptical of the bill in her remarks to the BBC.

Quebec’s controversial French law, Bill 96

Quebec’s Bill 96, which passed on May 24, concerns the French language.

French is the only official language in Quebec, so the new law does not establish new protections or rights for French speakers. Rather, it limits the use of other languages in public life, including in education, business, courts and government services (which, in Canada, includes medical care).

A few major points:

The bill caps enrollment in English-language colleges and requires that students without special language exemptions — typically granted when at least one parent was educated in English — attend at least three of their major subject courses in French. To graduate, students without language exemptions in English-language programs will need to pass a French exam.

New immigrants will be required to receive all government services in French within 6 months of arrival, even if the civil servants working with them can speak their languages.

Businesses with more than 25 employees will need to prove that they have a plan in place to ensure that French is used as their common workplace language (businesses with more than 50 employees already have this requirement). Requiring employees to have language skills in any language other than French is not permitted unless the employer can demonstrate that the other language is necessary for the work.

The point of the law is to prevent the French language from declining in Quebec, which already has rules in place promoting French over other languages, especially in education and business. In recent years, Quebec has made news for its at times bizarre attempts to prevent itself from becoming “another Louisiana.” The government pondered banning the popular bilingual greeting “bonjour/hi” a few years ago (it didn’t).

A majority — about 62% — of Quebecers support the bill, according to an online poll of 1,080 people. Opinion on the bill is sharply divided along language lines: 95% of anglophones were strongly or somewhat against the bill, whereas 77% of francophones strongly or somewhat support it.

Is French doing OK in Quebec?

Unlike Irish, French is not a minority language in Quebec, nor is it on its way to becoming one. One arguably sensationalized article claiming a “breaking point” in French language decline in Quebec cited studies predicting that the proportion of francophones in Quebec will sink from 79% in 2011 to some 71% by 2036.

This 8 percentage-point decline however, will not be matched by proportional gains in the English speaking population. The same study projects the anglophone population growing from about 11% in 2011 to 13% in 2036. Immigrants whose native language is neither French nor English make up the difference. Another study projecting futher,

Even though the population will remain majority Francophone (which other studies also predict), English is becoming more important in workplaces in Quebec. About 40% of business in Quebec require or want their employees to speak English. In Montreal, the rate is even higher — about two-thirds of employers want their employees to speak English.

However, some experts think that the “English-at-work” statistic may be misleading, giving the false impression that French is dying out. Employees don’t seem to be taking English home with them. Even in English-happy Montreal, only 7% of the population speaks only English. 36% speak only French, and most — 55% — speak both French and English.

For context, about 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home according to census data from 2009-2013 (the only years I could find in the Census Bureau’s language section). In some states, the proportion is much higher. As of 2016, about 44.6% of Californians did not speak English at home.

Official languages should be promises, not prohibitions

At their best, official languages are promises, not prohibitions.

Designating an official language does not — unless you write the laws that way — rule out the use of other languages when it makes sense. It simply guarantees that, when you speak that language, the state will hear you.

English is rather famously not the official language of the United States, which doesn’t have one. But it is in many states. The official language of California, for instance, is English. But visit California and you’ll see plenty of Spanish around, including in government communications. That’s because the official language being English does not rule out California using Spanish when it makes sense. This allows the state to respond more dynamically to the needs of its community by providing services in Spanish in certain areas.

Of course, not every language can be made official everywhere. Doing so would just be governments making promises they couldn’t keep. But making specific minority languages official in places with substantial speaker communities can protect those communities and preserve their connections to their language and cultural heritage.

Preserving those connections can have enormous consequences for well-being. Suicide rates among Indigenous youth in British Columbia are substantially lower in communities where at least half of the population speaks their ancestral language. It is not a coincidence that indigenous communities around the world are choosing to dedicate serious time, effort, and resources into reinvigorating and in some cases resurrecting their languages rather than simply adopting majority languages such as Spanish or English — even though doing so would come with obvious economic and social advantages.

Making minority languages official can protect the communities that use them. This is along the lines of what the UK’s Irish law seems aimed to do. It extends the guarantee of government services in Irish to its Irish-speaking citizens, giving them the right to speak to the state — and be spoken to — in their own language.

What do language laws really protect?

Quebec’s Bill 96 is a different kind of language law. French is already the sole official language in Quebec. Bill 96 does not extend language rights, but rather limits the use of non-official languages to promote the official language, French.

Quebec has long had laws limiting English (and other languages) — limits on which students can attend school in English, for instance. The new law goes a few steps further, tightening restrictions the use of all languages other than French in public life and preventing state employees from providing services in other languages in most cases.

This is potentially problematic, not least because limiting the state’s ability to use non-official languages makes government more rigid and unable to serve the needs of people who live there.

For instance, it is unclear whether English will be permitted for use in healthcare contexts under the new law. Lawmakers say it will, but some healthcare providers say it is a gray area. Rules already in place before Bill 96 mean that, without a language exception, Ukrainian children arriving in Quebec as refugees from the war in their home country must attend school in French) – even if they have already studied English as a second language.

Explicitly prohibiting use of non-official languages by state officials also threatens the fragile rights of minorities and minority languages, including indigenous groups. Indigenous activists concerned that the bill will threaten their own languages and communities are already challenging the bill.

In many ways, Bill 96 appears more concerned with promoting French than promoting human well-being. Preserving linguistic diversity is important, and sometimes laws can be the right tool for the job. But language laws promoting linguistic diversity should not come at the expense of… well… linguistic diversity.

The proportion of French native speakers in Quebec is projected to decline a few percent over the next decade, and English is widely used in offices. However, this does not seem to be because French speakers are swapping English for their native tongue. Rather, the proportion of Quebecers speaking a language other than French or English is increasing with immigration. Linguistic diversity in Quebec is increasing, not decreasing.

Nor do high workplace English use rates reflect what happens off the clock. Far more Quebecers speak both French and English than speak English alone, and far more Quebecers speak just French than just English. A mostly bilingual population — something rather unique in North America — and could easily be seen as a competitive advantage, not a problem.

And demand for English at the workplace is not reflected in better career prospects for English speakers: French speakers in Quebec have a lower unemployment rate and higher earnings than English speakers, who make up Quebec’s most diverse language group. A quarter of English speaking Quebecers belong to “visible minorities,” most of whom are Black or South Asian.

It remains to be seen how the UK bill will play out. But even considering its politically fraught background, its purpose appears just: it guarantees the Irish-speaking minority in Northern Ireland the right to receive services in their language and makes it easier to preserve an important piece of the cultural heritage of the region.

But what is Bill 96 “protecting,” exactly? French speakers? The French language — the majority and sole official language in Quebec?

When a language law seems more concerned with protecting a language than it is with protecting people, it’s time to start asking questions.

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