Pas devant les enfants: when is a language dangerous for children to hear? (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

Language policy is part of the air we breathe, here in Quebec. In our BILD blog posts, most of us have taken our musings about how Quebec language policy affects our lives, and woven them into our writing.

In fact, we are presenting our collective thoughts on “Micro-level case studies of policy as lived experience” at an upcoming conference at McGill May 5, 6 and 7, called For and against models of official multiculturalism and multilingualism (here’s the program). However, we won’t have time to tell very many or very long stories. So in case there isn’t time there, I will tell mine here.

This isn’t the story I had planned to tell. It happened only last week. I was on my way to pick up my small granddaughter at daycare. On my way there, my daughter texted me, as she often does.  But this time it wasn’t to remind me to bring home the extra running shoes or to leave the back-up bear there for naptime. This time, the message was: “The direction told us to only speak French and have BRIEF communication, i.e. not linger”.

True, I had fallen into the habit of going a bit early and sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the show. One daycare educator for each of the two groups of children, both of them quite extraordinary and possessed of remarkable patience, warmth, and ability to keep the children disciplined. Neither of them born in Canada. The worker for the younger children, male, is from France. My granddaughter’s caregiving lady is from India, from the city where I was born myself. She lived in France for years and speaks just as impeccable (and just as European) a French as her colleague on the other side of the floor. Of course, she is in fact trilingual; like all educated Indians, she speaks South Asian English, with the accent I grew up hearing from my father. And in her own language, which was also my father’s, she writes poems and stories I wish I could understand (my father only ever spoke English to us).

The children, of course, speak only French to their caregivers, because that’s the rule at this daycare. But where Quebec’s best-known piece of language legislation, the Charter of the French Language or “Bill 101” is concerned, daycares fly below the radar. Our language-of-instruction provisions kick in when public schooling does, at age 4 or 5, depending on when maternelle starts in a given school. All over Montreal there are daycares in which the language is emphatically not French. The reasons differ. And parents are willing to pay extra for this. Many of my former students are putting their TESL (Teaching English as a second language) degrees to good use in English-only daycares where francophone and allophone parents send their children to lay some kind of foundation in English before school takes over in French. Other daycares are run in the minority or “heritage” languages of the children’s families, to build up a base in those languages. My granddaughter’s little brother will soon be starting at a Spanish-only daycare. I think it will make a difference to his language development; already his sister usually speaks to him in French, although from birth she has never been addressed by either parent in anything but English or Spanish. The rule she has absorbed, like many Montreal children I know, seems to be “In a group of children (even a group of two in your own minority-language home), the default language is French”.

The parents of the children at this daycare are a mixture of anglophone and francophone. We often chat when we come to pick up the children, in English, French or a mixture of both. If we are anglophone, as I am, we speak to each other and to the children in English. It seems, though, that we have been altogether too chatty. Word has gotten around.

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So that day, when I arrived, my granddaughter’s wonderful, caring early child educator took me aside in some agitation and whispered that she wasn’t allowed to speak English anymore, that she had been instructed to reply in French to all the parents. Even if the parents continued speaking English to her. The children were not to hear her speaking it back.

I was glad I had been warned! But I was and remain astonished. My daughter doesn’t want to make trouble, so no one is asking the daycare owners about this sudden lowering of the policy boom. Perhaps as dutiful Montrealers some of us have been over-conditioned not to question language policy decisions from higher up, if questioning might mean “trouble”.

In any case, I was very glad that I had another language to fall back on with this particular person, whom I have grown very fond of. Although I only speak it very partially, here was the perfect chance to get in some twice-weekly practice of my heritage language. So:

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I declared loudly and ungrammatically, sending her into a fit of giggles. Wild horses will not drag from me the name of the language in question, nor the daycare! I am just as paranoid as the next Montrealer when push comes to shove and my language bravado, I mean activism, might have harmful consequences for someone who isn’t looking for trouble. But we both felt instant release. The move to a real minority language that we happen to share was instantly empowering. Suddenly neither of us was afraid of being overheard by one of the owners/directors who make policy, as we had been a moment before when speaking English.

I have been back two or three times since then. Now we are positively hollering our third common language across the floor at each other when I arrive. Joyfully!

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