Canada: Language Barrier

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 12 12:01:52 UTC 2006

May 11th, 2006

Language barrier
Brett Hooton

Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go
Away, by Graham Fraser (Douglas Gibson Books), 340 pp.

Graham Fraser confronts the "Canadian crisis that won't go away"
Montrealers do not spontaneously talk to strangers. True or not, this
perception of aloofness is usually attributed to the difficult nature of
social interaction in this city. Uncertain whether to address a person in
French or English, we often choose to say nothing at all.  It is the
inevitable need of francophone and anglophone Canadians to communicate,
and the perpetual struggle to do so effectively, that inspired Graham
Fraser's latest book, Sorry, I Don't Speak French:  Confronting the
Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away.

In a recent interview with Hour, Fraser emphasized that he intended his
book to serve as a "wake-up call" in a country where the language debate
has become "a minor discord in the public chorus of national
conversation." "I think a lot of English Canadians feel threatened by
French and feel guilty because they don't speak it," he says, "or think
that someone is trying to make them feel guilty and they resent that. So
there is an act of resistance and resentment that is not politically
correct or expressed very often. But I think that it is quietly there."

In order to combat the passive-aggressive tendencies of our national
psyche, Fraser has produced a practical plan for understanding and
rectifying Canada's language policy. First he presents a meticulously
researched history of the growth and evolution of official bilingualism.
Then his talents as a journalist shine through as he presents a series of
vivid case studies examining the effects of this policy on everything from
social etiquette in Ottawa to how Stephen Harper learned to speak French
with such a debonair accent. The book's strength rests on Fraser's ability
to explore his subject in depth while simultaneously reminding his readers
of the historical symbolism of this debate. For example, he writes: "The
fact that there is a thriving French-speaking society in Canada, and the
tensions that have resulted from this fact, is as central to Canadian
politics and society as race is to the United States, and class is to
Great Britain." Such conclusions are at once startlingly simple and
shockingly apt.

In an ideal world, Fraser imagines the government's policies creating
greater awareness and dialogue between French- and English-speaking
Canadians. "As Canadians enter their working lives, in whatever field," he
says, "I hope they would have already acquired some sense that there are
two dynamic linguistic communities in this country, with cultures and
economies and social lives that are dramatically and interestingly
different." Unfortunately, as Montrealers, our sensitivity to language
issues makes many of his arguments and proposed solutions for reaching
this goal - such as focusing more resources on youth, increasing teacher
exchanges and encouraging universities to stop treating French as a
foreign language - feel somewhat self-evident.

Nevertheless, often the most obvious solutions are also the most difficult
to recognize and implement. As a result, the next time you are out, Sorry,
I Don't Speak French may just prove to be the impetus you need to lean
over to the adjacent table and strike up a conversation.

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