Posted on April 11, 2005

Arabic Overtaking English as Quebec Schools’ Second Language

Jeff Heinrich, Gazette (Montreal), Mar. 31

A quick quiz: What is the second most common mother tongue of students in Quebec’s French-language school system?

If you answered English, you are right. But it won’t be for long, new Education Department enrolment figures show. By 2006 at the earliest, the most common mother tongue in schools after French will be Arabic.

Not Spanish — Arabic outpaced it already four years ago. Not Italian, either, or Creole, or any of the Chinese languages.

Though still far behind the language of Moliere that is the vast majority’s mother tongue, the language of Mohammed is about to overtake the language of Milton in Quebec’s francophone primary and secondary schools.

Hobbled by immigration policies that favour applicants from French-speaking countries, including Arab ones like Algeria and Morocco, and by education policies that send most immigrants to French-language schools, English has not been able to keep up.

“It’s an interesting milestone,” said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, which has analyzed the phenomenon.

“A decade ago, people in Quebec were talking about the growing importance of Spanish in our system. But with changing immigration patterns, it’s actually Arabic that’s eclipsed Spanish and now will eclipse English,” he said.

This year, 18,649 students in the French system speak English as their mother tongue, compared with 17,313 in 1999 — an increase of only about eight per cent in five years, according to 2004-05 enrolment figures the Education Department made public last week. By contrast, Arabic as a mother tongue has jumped more than five times as fast, by 42 per cent. It’s now spoken by 18,084 students, compared with 12,731 in 1999.

One of the schools where the change is obvious is Ecole St. Remy, a primary school on Rome Ave. in north-end Montreal. Forty-four per cent of its 650 students are “arabophone,” as they say in French, mostly belonging to immigrant families from south Lebanon.

By religion, the majority are also Muslim, a fact evident in the hijabs worn by many of the girls. The school’s principal is Arabic-speaking, too, but Catholic, an immigrant from Egypt 35 years ago. His goal is integration of all the minorities in his school, including the Arabs.

“We’re not here to create a ghetto, a little Lebanon,” Raouf Absi said. “We’re here to help these people integrate and make a life in Quebec and Canada.”

To that end, the principal has made it a rule that French is the only language allowed on school property. The only exception is during special Arab language classes given at lunch hour and after school, five days a week.