Last week, Canada’s Parti Québecois
introduced Bill 14 to the National Assembly. This piece of legislation seeks to
set new requirements regarding the use of the French language in Quebec, where
7 to 8 million speak French as a first or second language. In 1977, Bill 101,
the “French language charter,” set French as the official language of Quebec and
delineated requirements on the use of French within the province. While the law
helped to protect the French language, English still holds dominance in some geographical
parts of Quebec or in certain business types, in spite of the fact that only an
estimated 8.3% of
the population declare English as a mother tongue.
The new law seeks to further defend the French language. Bill
101 already requires businesses with more than 50 employees in Quebec to make
French the everyday language of the workplace. However, the next tier of
businesses, those with between 26 and 50 employees, previously escaped such
requirements. Under Bill 14, they would have to use French for internal
communications. Like their larger counterparts, they would also be required to be
able to inform and serve clients in French.
In the short term, additional language requirements might
increase costs, although translation and other language services typically
account for only a tiny percentage of most companies’ budgets. Then again, one
has to wonder how many of these businesses can survive without French in the
first place when 78.9% of the population they serve is francophone. Tourism is
the fifth-largest industry in Quebec, so offering services in languages other
than English would be a smart business move for many firms. Indeed, the
requirement to make information and services available in French might actually
help many of these businesses grow. Marketing to people directly in their
native language increases their likelihood of making a purchase, as (see "Can’t
Read, Won’t Buy: Why Language Matters on Global Websites," Sep06).
Today, 90 cities in Quebec have “bilingual status,” which entitles
them to city services and signage in both English and French. The new bill
would make it easier to remove bilingual status whenever a city’s population
falls below a threshold of 50% of citizens with English as their mother tongue.
The problem? The vast majority of those municipalities (90%) do not currently meet
the threshold because allophones – people whose mother tongue is neither French
or English – are not counted, even though they may use English as their primary
language when outside of the home. Should a city lose its bilingual status, it would
be able to provide signage and services in French only. Due to strong pushback
from the English-speaking community, the Parti Québécois lowered the benchmark from
50% to 40% just a few days after introducing the Bill.
Bill 14 would certainly generate more demand for language
services. Language service providers (LSPs) would need to fill the gaps by
providing translation, interpreting, and staffing services. However, many
translation agencies we talk with have a hard time sourcing translators for
Canadian French. Translation agencies may not be prepared to handle the increase
in demand that the law would create. The LSPs that may benefit the most from
this increase may be those that cater to smaller accounts with less maturity
when it comes to buying translation (see “Localization
Maturity Model,” Aug06).
Canada has the eleventh-largest economy in the world, and it
could stand to reap several benefits under the proposed law. Laws that expand
language access, enabling goods and services to be accessed in more languages,
are usually good for business too, as the cost of translation is minimal
compared to the revenue it generates (see "Translation at Fortune 500 Companies," Mar12).
Similarly, in the era of globalization, policies that limit
the rights of people to receive information in their native languages are often
economically short-sighted. Organizations doing business in Canada should keep
a close eye on this proposed legislation, as it will certainly have an impact
on them, and on the language industry at large.