Canada: Military changing approach to bilingualism

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 2 18:18:18 UTC 2006

Military changing approach to bilingualism
Only those in leadership roles will need language training

By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter

The military is giving up on the idea of a fully bilingual army, navy and
air force. Nearly two decades ago, the Canadian Forces adopted what it
called "a universal approach" to bilingualism, aimed at making sure
everyone in uniform could speak both official languages. "Weve changed our
approach and were going to be a little bit more selective now on who has
to be bilingual," National Defence spokeswoman Tanya Barnes said Thursday.

"Were moving away from our universal approach, with everyone being
bilingual, to the functional approach. Only those (Canadian Forces)
members that must be bilingual are going to be required to become
bilingual and then these people are going to have priority access to
second-language training." People in leadership roles will still be
required to speak both official languages, she said. Senior officers, from
colonels and naval captains on up, will need to be bilingual, according to
military documents. So will senior non-commissioned officers, such as
chief warrant officers and chief petty officers.

Relaxing the language rules is a "major change" for the military, said
Eric Lerhe, a retired commodore living in Dartmouth. "Those people who
broke their butts to get bilingual are going to say, What? This is a
change in policy. My investment has just been, not cheapened, but it no
longer has the high payback it once did, " said Mr.  Lerhe, now a research
fellow at Dalhousie Universitys Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. But he
said it "makes sense that people only receive expensive bilingualism
training for the jobs where they need it."

"And it reduces the amount of French training we used to give to people
who had a very low utility for the language but did it to get promoted."
About 73 per cent of the people in the military are anglophone and 27 per
cent are francophone, according to a recently released Canadian Forces
document. The military has a large number of anglophones with a low level
of bilingualism and a large number of fluently bilingual francophones,
says the backgrounder. "As a result, francophone personnel have found
themselves filling the majority of (Canadian Forces) positions that
require fluency in both official languages."

Many anglophones have been denied the opportunity to serve in positions
where they need to speak French, says the document. "They have, more
frequently than francophones, been held back from promotion owing to a
lack of bilingual ability." One defence analyst questioned whether the
military is taking advantage of the fact that there is a Conservative
government in power to make the changes. "There is no doubt there is an
anti-Quebec odour to a lot of their support base," said Steve Staples, of
the left-leaning Polaris Institute, based in Ottawa.

He also wondered how the new language policy will impact the military's
operational capability. "Could we see a situation where soldiers in the
field are unable to communicate with other members of the Canadian Forces,
perhaps in a combat situation where communication is crucial?" Mr. Staples
said. In February, Canadas Commissioner of Official Languages said the
Department of National Defence must stop using military requirements as an
excuse to avoid meeting bilingual requirements. Dyane Adam recommended
that all officers with the rank of colonel or navy captain and above be
bilingual by 2007. Ms. Adams audit showed that 42 per cent of military
officers in bilingual positions speak French and English, compared with 82
per cent throughout the federal public service.

( clambie at


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