Sunday, 6 November 2016

Ups and Downs of English in Montreal

The issue of English increasing its presence on commercial signs in the Montreal area has come periodically to the forefront. French lobbies have been active in filing complaints with the OQLF. In 2009-10, 39.1% of the complaints filed at the OQLF dealt with the language of commercial signs, up from 26.4% in 2008-09 (OQLF, 2010: 70) and 10.5% in 2006-2007 (OQLF, 2007: XIII).

A series of reports on the language of commercial signs in Montreal made public by the OQLF on 1 June 2012 went almost unnoticed, since it was released in the wake of massive student protests and social unrest. It should not come as a surprise that these reports were published at a time when they would pass almost unnoticed. For indeed their findings tend to confirm the apprehensions of those complaining that English is coming back in force in the Montreal area (see testimonies posted on French language advocacy sites such as and

According to this 2012 report, in 1997 and 2010 French was present on respectively 96% and 94% of business names and signs; this means a slight decrease of the presence of French on commercial signs in the whole Montreal area from 1997 to 2010 and it is statistically significant (OQLF, 2012b: 39). In 2010 some 82% of signs posted on shops and businesses were in French only, some 3% were bilingual but with a marked predominance given to French. The OQLF report acknowledges that French is indeed predominant in the linguistic landscape of Montreal; and in some areas it is even the only language used on commercial signs (OQLF, 2012b: 41). However in the West Island area 11% of commercial signs have no French wording (OQLF, 2012b: 44).

The OQLF report also concludes that English is “stable” on commercial signs though its presence went down from 43% in 1997 to 41% in 2010 (OQLF, 2012b: 9-10). The statement that the presence of English is stable is dubious and even misleading considering that from 43% in 1997 it went up to 49% in 1999 and then down to 41% in 2010. The figures rather show that English is far from being stable and suggest that it might indeed be retreating. These figures are not concealed but the report prefers to play down this potential decrease of English on commercial signs. Such behaviour is puzzling and one may wonder why the OQLF prefers not to highlight this relative decrease in the presence of English in a context where this agency is frequently reproached to be weak in its defence of French. The explanation for this behaviour might be that it was not socially and politically acceptable to suggest that English might be less present on commercial signage. Especially at a time when the linguistic insecurity of French-speaking Montrealers ran high and when other reports published simultaneously attested to a decrease in the use of French (see my post on the use of French in attending customers in shops and retail stores). Moreover it should be reminded that the report was published in a pre-electoral climate (elections were called a few weeks later on 1 August 2012) and that English speakers and more generally people who do not have French as their native language constitute the hard core of the Quebec Liberal Party electorate (so much so that political opinion poll data are regularly disaggregated between native speakers of French and native speakers of all other languages). It should therefore not come as a surprise that the then Liberal government (and the sovereignist Official Opposition) would choose to play down this relative decrease in the use of English.

The 2010 survey was updated in 2012 but only for a section of downtown Montreal (St.-Catherine Street between Papineau and Atwater). The scope of this new survey was restricted to business names. The OQLF found that 81.7% of businesses complied with the requirements of Bill 101 while 18.3% did not (OQLF, 2012c: 25). But according to a survey made the same year by Radio-Canada in the same section of downtown Montreal and with the same target, more than 25% of business names did not comply with Bill 101 (Faits et Causes, 2012). It is reasonable to assume that the figures given by the OQLF survey are more accurate owing to the agency legal expertise, whereas the Radio-Canada findings would be more consistent with popular feeling.
For references, see preceding posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment