When Being From France Isn’t French Enough

Here’s an easy question for you: What language do people in France speak?

Really, there’s no trick. The answer is “French.”

Here’s a somewhat harder question: What language do people in the Canadian province of Quebec speak?

The answer: French, mostly. According to the 2021 Canadian Census, nearly 94% of Quebec residents stated they spoke French, but only about 52% stated they spoke English. (The next highest-fairing language, Spanish, came in at only 5.5%.) The people and leadership of Quebec take French seriously; for example, even though Canada has two official languages — English and French — in 1974, Quebec’s legislature passed a law making French the only official language in the province. Most street signs in the province (see examples here) are primarily in French, and as recently as 2021, Quebec floated legislation to strengthen the importance of the language within its borders. 

In order to encourage younger French speakers to live in Quebec, in 2010, the provincial government established the “Quebec Experience Program” (PEQ) which, among other things, gives foreign students who obtained a degree in Quebec to establish residency in the province and legally obtain work. To qualify for the PEQ, though, you need to do more than simply graduate; per the provincial website, you also need to provide “a final transcript attesting that you successfully completed at least three years of studies at the secondary or post-secondary level; full-time; entirely in French.”

In 2019, the word “entirely” (“entièrement,” in French) proved problematic for Émilie Dubois, who had just completed her doctoral degree at Laval University in Quebec City. Dubois was a foreign student — she was born and raised in France. A well-educated 31-year-old native French speaker sounds exactly like the type of person the PEQ was designed to attract, and as Laval University conducts its classes in French, there shouldn’t have been an issue. But there was. As the Guardian explained, Dubois’ dissertation on cellular and molecular biology was written primarily, but not entirely, in French: “The first chapter of her work – a response to a scientific journal article – was written in English, while the remaining four sections were written in French.” It was a sensible choice given that the journal article she was responding to was, itself, written in English.

But sensible or not, that decision cost her on the immigration side: her application to remain in Quebec with work authorization went poof. Per the New York Times, “the immigration minister had written to her that she had not demonstrated sufficient proficiency in French to receive a certificate that is a prerequisite to gaining permanent residency.” To assuage those ridiculous concerns, per the Guardian, she “took a government-approved French language test to prove she could speak her native tongue, immediately submitting the results” and, of course, passed, but it was all for naught; “months later, she was notified that the government had chosen to uphold its original decision.” Being a native French speaker from France apparently wasn’t enough.

Thankfully, saner heads prevailed. After Dubois’s story made international headlines, she was able to connect with Catherine Dorion, an assembly member. Dorion, according to the Canadian Press, convinced the government to overturn the decision and grant Dubois lawful immigration status.

Bonus fact: Consistent with the story above, Quebec may take French more seriously than France does. As seen here, stop signs in Quebec read “Arrêt,” the French word for “stop.” But in France, they read “Stop,” as seen here. It’s not an English word, though — well, not anymore, at least. The French word “stopper” means “to stop [something],” and “stop” is the command form of “stopper.” But it’s a relatively new word in French. According to Grammarphobia, “the verb ‘stopper’ doesn’t appear in any of the online Académie Française dictionaries until the eighth edition, which dates from the early 1930s. And the ninth edition suggests ‘stop’ is derived from the English word.”

From the Archives: Thankfully, They Left the Expensive Ketchups at Home: A story about a product made in Quebec (kind of).