The Globe and Mail

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at
Sat Feb 28 22:18:59 UTC 2004


  Jeffrey Simpson

  From Saturday's Globe and Mail

  Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004

Three-quarters of English speakers outside Quebec wish they could speak
French, but only 7-per-cent can.

A huge majority of French-speakers in Quebec thinks speaking English
would be a good idea, but only 37-per-cent can.

A large gap exists, then, between the lip and the cup. What Canadians
would like, linguistically speaking, is not what happens.

A very human phenomenon probably explains part of the lip-cup gap. You
might like to play the piano, run a marathon or read Proust without
summoning the energy or finding the time. The same applies to learning
another language. It might be worthwhile, but the energy and time are

Language policy has fallen out of the news. It is no longer fashionable
or newsworthy. Maybe that's a hopeful development, given Canada's
history of linguistic tension, because languages can both unite and

Ottawa, however, has established a policy objective of doubling the
number of bilingual high-school graduates by 2013. A national symposium
on official languages, organized by the Commissioner of Official
Languages, will be held next week.

If the past is a guide, even if Ottawa's policy objective were
achieved, it would likely produce an increase in French-speakers
learning English rather than English-speakers learning French. Why?
Because bilingualism among francophones in Quebec has been growing,
while remaining steady among anglophones outside Quebec.

These statements, and others, can be supported by data collected by
Environics Research and analyzed by the Centre for Research and
Information on Canada (CRIC).

That's where the figure comes from that after three decades of
French-immersion education programs and three-and-a-half decades of the
Official Languages Act, only 7 per cent of anglophones outside Quebec
can speak French. Boosters of personal bilingualism had every reason
for expecting a better result.

Institutional bilingualism doesn't ruffle as many feathers as it once
did. The CRIC data show that a majority of Canadians generally support
the policy of two official languages, although obviously support is
higher in Quebec than elsewhere.

Younger Canadians, especially, think that preserving English and French
is important, having two official languages makes them proud of their

Like most Canadians, young people believe the federal government should
deliver services in two languages. One exception exists to this
welcoming attitude: older men in Western Canada, according to the
Environics/CRIC data. Young people and women in Western Canada share
the same attitudes as similar groups in other parts of English-speaking
Quebec, but older men in the West do not.

Reports CRIC: "Men in the West, and Westerners aged 55 and over, are
the most likely subgroups to say that having two official languages
makes them feel not at all proud to be Canadian."

Three-quarters of those in English-speaking Canada who think that
learning a second language is important believe French should be that
language. Atlantic Canadians are the most supportive; British
Columbians the least. Even in B.C., 58-per-cent support French,
compared to 16-per-cent for Chinese languages.

In national politics, it's now a given (Belinda Stronach excepted) that
a party leader, let alone a prime minister, must be somewhat or
fluently bilingual. Just as a bank president needs a set of skills,
including knowing how to read a balance sheet, so a senior federal
leader today in Canada should display some capacity in both official

That assertion, however, slams against the reality that only 7 per cent
of anglophones outside Quebec are bilingual. That limits drastically
the potential pool of anglophones who can do the top jobs, and causes a
certain resentment among those who can't or won't learn French. True,
they can learn French along the way, but they start at a disadvantage.

Learning French can, of course, be accomplished by those with political
ambition, as former Prime Minister Joe Clark showed. Although
Conservative candidate Stephen Harper's French is shaky, a good deal
shakier than unilingual anglophone reporters suggest, he can, in a
manner of speaking, be understood by francophones. At least Mr. Harper
has tried and succeeded to some extent.

Are schools letting the country down? The CRIC data suggest that only
25 per cent of anglophones outside Quebec agreed with the statement:
"Learning a second language is one of the least important subjects for
students to study in school." Years ago, many provincial education
ministries dropped mandatory study of any second language. That was a
huge mistake. One of Canada's potential comparative advantages vis à
vis the United States would be a large share of the population with at
least two languages.

The data suggests that 88 per cent of Canadians agree that "in today's
global economy, people with an ability to speak more than one language
will be more successful," and 82-per-cent accept that "learning a
second language is one of the more fulfilling things that you can do
for yourself as a person." The sentiments are right; the reality is
somewhat different.

 © 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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