Bilingualism: You say tomato, I say tomate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 26 13:31:13 UTC 2006

>>From the Toronto Globe and Mail


You say tomato, I say tomate

	Sorry, I Don't Speak French

	Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away

	By Graham Fraser

	McClelland & Stewart,

	340 pages $34.99

In politics as in publishing, timing is crucial. Had Graham Fraser's
report card on the impact of federal language policy appeared even six
months ago, it might have disappeared into the slag-heap of ruminative
tomes churned out each year by seasoned newspapermen who've grown bored
with the daily grind. But while Fraser's book was at the printers, two new
players appeared on the political scene, giving his topic an edge it could
otherwise never have hoped to enjoy. A Harvard man now runs the Parti
Qubcois, a bilingual guy from Alberta is prime minister. One way or
another, Andr Boisclair and Stephen Harper will have to face the central
question of this book: How has four decades of federal language policy
changed the essence of Canada?

Sorry, I Don't Speak French is a curious, unblended mix of tones, at times
apologetic, occasionally rising to the level of lament. There are flashes
of anger, too, but then the sun comes out, trumpets hold forth and the
author is struck by a sudden glimpse of forest amid the trees. A former
Globe and Mail columnist, currently with The Toronto Star, Fraser has
produced four earlier works, including a trenchant analysis of Ren Lvesque
and the Parti Qubcois, considered one of the best treatments of the
subject to date in either official language. This time, his stake is
personal. An Ontario native, Fraser arrived in Montreal as a teenager just
as the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was launched in
1965.  He was determined to turn his high school grammar lessons into a
spoken language. Immersing himself in francophone culture, he soon became
aware of how many language-related indignities the average French Canadian
had to suffer on a daily basis. After living and working in Quebec as a
journalist for a decade, he watched as the survival and status of the
French language began to fill a void in the Quebecois psyche left by the
collapse of religious belief. Combine that with a declining birth rate and
the threat of multiculturalism, and rhetoric easily overtook reason.
Meanwhile, the rest of Canada turned ferociously secular.

Aware of how fed up many people are with this subject, Fraser suggests
that readers may want to skip the historical background chapters. This
would be a mistake. The first 100 pages are a masterful,
personality-driven account of how a unilingual prime minister, Lester
Pearson, who never achieved a majority government, launched a lengthy
public debate that actually played a part in defining Quebec nationalism,
as well as inspiring the federalist response. He illuminates the Bi-Bi's
defining moment, a fork in the way ahead. Frank Scott -- lawyer, poet,
Rhodes Scholar and anglo commissioner with a profound grasp of Quebec
culture and the French language -- envisioned a bilingual Quebec which in
time might prove a model for the entire country.  Eventually, the two
founding nations would be able to communicate with each other on many
levels, thus opening the way for children of the Quiet Revolution to take
their places in a post-industrial society.

Instead, the commission and ultimately the federal government opted for a
bilingual state, in which national services would be offered to taxpayers
in both official languages, eventually (ideally) from sea to sea, in
effect, a further codification of the pact offered by the British crown to
French-speaking subjects through the Quebec Act of 1774. Power was carved
up and distributed between elites: church and state in the 18th century,
provincial and federal governments in the 20th. This essentially
technocratic solution was embraced by Pierre Trudeau, who, despite his
insouciant assumption that every intelligent person should be able to
speak at least two languages, never for a moment imagined the masses would
learn. Amid endless hours of debate and number crunching, it dawned on
Scott that the notion of a bilingual state that came to dominate the
commission depended on, and therefore was obliged to protect, unilingual

The bilingual state's mission, according to the report, is to "maintain or
preserve the cultures and languages of their surviving national groups. .
. . These unilingual nuclei form the great mass of the population of
bilingual states; they are the centres around which each of the major
language groups tend to cluster." This was the theory. As a consequence,
the bilingual state should not act as "an instrument for the propagation
of individual bilingualism." Official bilingualism, Fraser points out, has
been ludicrously expensive and only marginally effective. Four decades
later, middle-aged anglophone cadres are still sent off to language
courses. Only Quebec offers a significant pool of well-educated, bilingual
youths to fill public service jobs.

While primary schools across the country embarked on an ambitious program
of creating French immersion schools in every province, and parents
responded enthusiastically, Canadian universities ignored the importance
of French language skills as part of postsecondary education, even going
so far as dropping the basic second-language requirement for postgraduate
studies. This during years when universities became hypersensitive to
other market demands, bestowing resources on faculties of business,
science and even creative writing. (Aspiring artists can now get a masters
degree in how to write a novel!) Yet French is a low-key option, one
language among the many. "Canada's English-language universities treat
French as a foreign language whose literature should be studied by those
preparing to be French teachers, while our schools treat it like
catechism, something to be absorbed before the age of 12 and then
neglected." The obvious rejoinder, that ivory towers define their own
priorities, has been proved false. When the Chrtien government offered
$1-billion through the Canada Research Chair program to hire top
researchers at internationally competitive salaries and conditions,
cash-hungry universities were eager to respond.

As for French-language instruction at the primary and secondary level,
where it is so much cheaper and quicker to produce results, parents leaped
at the chance to send their children to immersion programs, yet there is
little funding for students or teachers to experience the language where
it is spoken. As Fraser points out, it's easier for teachers to get a
working exchange year in Australia or France than in other parts of
Canada. Lamenting for a country we might have had if Frank Scott's vision
had carried the day is, of course, futile. In Scott's own back yard, the
vision has become reality. Montreal is a bilingual city. When Fraser plays
the intrepid reporter, goes down into the streets to observe the city at
work and play, his mood lifts. Not only has French become the language
most people use spontaneously in public, "the default language of public
intercourse," it has lost its status as "a secret ethnic code, accessible
only to the descendants of the pre-Conquest settlers."

At best, Fraser is cautiously pessimistic about the big picture. He
believes the "fundamental realities" leading to the bitter, divisive
outcome of the last referendum haven't changed much. What weighs an
otherwise compelling book down is the dog-bites-man nature of his
conclusions. Surely we've got more or less what a policy of "official"
bilingualism set out to get. In that context, it's actually quite
impressive that 1.3 million Canadians living outside Quebec speak French,
or claim they can. Meanwhile, four million Quebeckers, most of them living
outside Montreal, don't speak English, up from 3.2 million in 1965.
(Although the proportion of unilingual Quebeckers hasn't changed, given
the technology explosion and the increased importance of English as an
international tool of communication, any increase at all can only be the
result of carefully crafted educational policy.) By becoming seriously
bilingual, embracing French as the social or at least public language,
anglo Montrealers have won the right to stop worrying about it and get on
with other important challenges -- say, mastering new technology, or
picking up Spanish. In this respect, they're no different from the island
population at large.

With vast areas of Quebec tuned into their one-channel universe, bilingual
Montreal will be Andr Boisclair's main battleground. A narrow,
grudge-based appeal to sovereignty won't be likely to cut it with
confident, well-heeled young urbanites who can converse in two or more
languages. But if he starts talking about other issues, say war, the
environment or trade, the Conservatives may find themselves at a loss for

Marianne Ackerman is a Montreal journalist, novelist and playwright, and
co-founder of the bilingual Theatre 1774.

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