The Bonjour/Hi controversy

As language lovers, we can only think of more languages spoken being everywhere as a good thing. But for places like Quebec, the thought of having to greet people in more than one language has become a bit of a political issue. So, what is the problem with the Bonjour/Hi greeting?


Photo via Pixabay


Firstly, what is the Bonjour/Hi greeting?

The Bonjour/Hi greeting is simply that; staff greet customers with this unique bilingual greeting instead of choosing either English or French.


So what’s the problem?

While retail workers in Montreal have been happily adopting the Bonjour/Hi greeting to welcome a more diverse clientele, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, wants to ban the greeting in favour of French only. 



The Office québécois de la langue française states that French language greetings in Montreal dropped from 84 percent to 75 percent between 2010 and 2017. Jolin-Barrette sees this as evidence of the erosion of the French language, that the French language is under threat of extinction.


Photo via Pixabay


What are the implications?

French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, so it seems strange that people fear it being at risk of disappearing. Though on a local level where French is the native language, things can feel very differently. The more bilingual greetings and general language use there is in an area, the more one of those languages might feel invaded, or oppressed. The more people who use English for convenience, the fewer who might take an interest in the French language and work on keeping it alive.

But on the other hand, around 80 percent of the population of Quebec speak French as a native language, with around another 10 percent speaking other languages, and a further 10 percent, English. That is by far the largest population of French speakers in Canada; French is clearly going nowhere. And if we encourage monolingualism, isn’t that a dangerous spiral of shutting out those who don’t speak the language? As Jolin-Barrette is also Quebec’s immigration minister does this insistence on French only not feel a little anti-immigrant?


Further language facts and figures

Canada is a bilingual country with government legislation and public signage generally displayed in both English and French. The split during the 2011 Census was approximately 60 percent English to around 21 percent French, with the rest made up of other languages. More than 200 languages are in fact spoken as a first language in Canada giving the country a rich diversity it should be proud of. 

According to Silota, more young people than ever are choosing to speak English instead of French, while the majority of French-only speakers are aged 60 and over. Is this French-only argument then merely a generational issue where older people grip tightly to the past, while young people look to the future? Surely the way to encourage French growth and learning is to support it and make lessons easily accessible for all, instead of dictating what business can and can’t do?


So, what’s happening?

Initially, Jolin-Barrette called for new legislation to outright ban the use of the Bonjour/Hi greeting in all businesses in favour of using French only instead. Jolin-Barrette said, “We are open to any measure that will reinforce the idea that French is the language of use in the workplace and in Quebec society in general.”

Now, however, Jolin-Barrette has changed his wording. His current stance is that the government is looking for ways to promote and protect the French language, to encourage retailers to only use bonjour instead of legislating to make it compulsory to do so. 


Photo via Pixabay


Café Bonjour/Hi

Long before the Bonjour/Hi greeting hit such controversy, new cafe owner Dave Plant decided to name his new establishment Café Bonjour/Hi. He has been interviewed by various news outlets since Jolin-Barrette’s comments and maintains that all of his staff are bilingual, and that bilingualism is important; especially in the cafe’s location on St. Denis Street where the community is bilingual. Though Plant is enjoying all the free advertising this greeting discussion is giving him! 

If retailers and business owners across Quebec are dubious about the government’s intent with its French-only stance, and their customers are happy to speak to them in either language, then perhaps the government needs to listen more to its own people before making such decisions.

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