After centuries of tension with their English-speaking compatriots, French Canadians suddenly seem to think that learning English may be a good thing.
More than 500 persons had to be turned down when the provincial government's Tele-universite, a University of Quebec subsidiary, began a home study television course of 13 weeks of conversational English. But when the first class of 950 graduates in January, the language its members speak may surprise their neighbors in North America.
Earnest Quebeckers learn English by following two families at home, at school, at work and at play. They are a jolly lively and oh-so-English bunch who frequently have poached haddock for breakfast, use "spanners" to tighten bolts and cross the street at a "zebra crossing" before taking the "underground" to work.
Since the emphasis in the lesson is on practical matters confronting travelers and shoppers, the Quebeckers learn that divided highways are called "dual carriageways" and that expressways are called "motorways."
Those who go on trips are cautioned that there is a distinction between "teamperance hotels," the puritan establishments that serve no alcohol, and "country house hotels" that are frequently less expensive.
They are armed with additional phrases like "Does this tariff include full English breakfast." Or, "Fancy a reduction of three point fifty pounds." And the "telly" is included.
All this, at least theoretically, is to be said with the accent, inflection and intonation of English as spoken by the queen.
Why teach such exotic English? Mainly because the course was made in France, where the British rather than the North American variety is the English that is taught.
Perhaps the nearest one can come to an answer is the obvious switch on the traditional preference of English Canada for the teaching of Parisian French. Those anglophones who acquire a degree of proficiency in Parisian French have an awful time when they come here and try to figure out what is being said in the French dialect spoken in Quebec.
Officials of the separatist provincial government chuckle privately when asked about the course. The reason given pubicly is that they could not find a North American conversational English course.
"We didn't have the time or the professors to build a new course," according to Robert Pare, the professor in charge.
The interest in English has been on the rise in Quebec ever since the provincial government passed in 1977 the controversial Bill 101 making French the sole official language in the province. Experts say one of the main reasons is that French-speakers now do not feel threatened anymore by the English community.
Educators say that interest in English is also due to the fact that Bill 101 denies parents the rights to send their children to English schools. English is now offered as a foreign language, but according to one American couple who settled here, their children are learning English from a Haitian-born teacher whose knowledge of the language they described as "rudimentary."