[lg policy] Multilingualism: speaking with one voice

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Apr 4 18:51:19 UTC 2016

Multilingualism: speaking with one voice
By Dale Bechtel
Culture <http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/culture> Human interest

Apr 4, 2016 - 17:00
[image: A new language law was approved in Graubünden in 2007 to put
Italian and Romansh on a more equal footing with German in the canton.

A new language law was approved in Graubünden in 2007 to put Italian and
Romansh on a more equal footing with German in the canton.
If you only speak one language, and you happen to live in a multilingual
country like Canada or Switzerland, Graham Fraser is the guy to have on
your side.

I’m waiting in the lobby of the west wing of the Swiss parliament for Graham
Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages
<http://www.officiallanguages.gc.ca/en>, to be ushered in by his Swiss
counterpart, Nicoletta Mariolini.

I’m curious as to what language the English and Italian speakers have
chosen to converse in when they arrive. It’s French.
[image: Graham Fraser (zVg)]

Graham Fraser

Fraser is fluent in French, both spoken and written, which puts the
language ombudsman in an ideal position to take part in a debate in the
Swiss capital. The subject being discussed is dry but one about fundamental
rights: access to public services in your language, as long as it’s an
official one. Fraser has stated that part of his job is to guarantee the
right of people to remain unilingual. With only a small window to talk to
him before he is ushered away, I wanted to ask him about that in order to
understand why that’s so important.

*The paradox*

“It’s a paradox at the heart of Canada’s language policy,” he replies,
explaining that at its core the legislation – introduced in
1969 – guarantees French speakers the same level of services from the
federal government as English speakers.

He continues with an unpretentious description of the language situation in
Canada: “In some ways it’s misleading to say that Canada is a bilingual
country if that suggests that everybody is required or inspired to learn
both languages. It is a country with two language communities, both of
which are a majority unilingual, and the bridge between these two
communities is the federal government.”
[image: (Keystone)]
Podcast Understanding the daily challenges of multilingualism
By Thomas Stephens

Speaking many languages in a multilingual country like Switzerland is
certainly a blessing – but can it ever be a burden?
Culture <http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/culture> Society

*Parlez-vous Deutsch?*

Therefore it comes as a surprise to learn that Canada’s francophone
community is much more bilingual than the three official language groups of
Switzerland <http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/languages/29177618>, a country
that prides itself on its linguistic prowess. More than 40% of
French-Canadians can converse in English. For Canada as a whole, the figure
is about 17%
whether it’s English or French. That’s compared to only 7.5% of people
living in either of Switzerland’s German- or French-speaking regions who
claim they can get by in their second Swiss language. Less than 2% can
manage all three.

At the heart of the issue – and the reason Fraser was invited to
Switzerland – is the challenge governments face in continuing to provide
flawless services to residents, regardless of the language they speak.

One of the Swiss public policy experts at the event, Peter Knoepfel, said
Switzerland had met its goals from a quantitative point of view but there
“are still doubts concerning the language skills of employees, and
particularly managers” in the federal administration.

Knoepfel added that education was the key to readdressing the issue by
ensuring schools expose Swiss pupils to a second Swiss language at an early
age. However some cantons have been putting English ahead of French on the
curriculum, which he said could “have repercussions for national linguistic

A University of Fribourg study
<http://bildung-z.ch/volksschule/fremdsprachenevaluation-2016> one year ago
looked at the language results of 3,700 grade 6 and 8 students in six
German-speaking cantons where English is taught from grade 3 and French
from grade 5. The results were sobering: only 3.4% of the grade 8 students
achieved a satisfactory level in the speaking test. Writing skills were
better, but still poor, with 37% deemed satisfactory. In English, 65.6% of
students received passing marks for their writing ability.

*Playing catch up*

In addition, playing catch up by providing language courses for people in
public sector jobs usually falls short of the goal since it’s a much
greater challenge for adult learners to attain a good command of a second

In Canada, each year about 300,000 English-speaking students are registered
in French immersion programmes, meaning all their studies are in French.
However, Fraser tells me that that number hasn’t grown since the end of the
1980s. He argues that universities have to do a better job raising
awareness among students of the importance of being bilingual. It also
helps when applying for a job with the federal government – the country’s
biggest employer. If universities do their part, Fraser reckons, the
message will trickle down to high schools.

Fraser has been there. He left high school with a basic level of French. It
was his determination to gain a better understanding of Canada’s other
language region that spurred him on, and no doubt a lot of hard work led to
success. He experienced a defining moment when working as a student
volunteer on an archaeological dig in Quebec. Another volunteer noted that
he was a different person when speaking French.

“I snapped at her and said ‘Of course I’m different, I’m stupid, I’m
inarticulate and I have no sense of humour’.”

Linguists have long wrestled with how language shapes our identity. His
anecdote shows that if the adage is true that we are what we eat, it is
also true that we are what we speak.


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