Are official languages inclusionary or exclusionary in other countries?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 16 14:00:02 UTC 2008

Are official languages inclusionary or exclusionary in other countries?

Language Log has been writing about how there are some people in the
US who want to make English the official language of the country
(currently it has no official languages). This has been grating on me,
and for the longest time I wasn't able to articulate why. After all, I
earn my living through our official languages. I have more academic
and professional knowledge of official languages policy than most
people, and it's always struck me as completely benign and not
especially worth worrying about. So if Canada's official languages
policy seems so utterly harmless to me, why does this proposed US
official languages policy give me a gut reaction of "OMG that is SO
WRONG!!!!"? (Yes, I know, American policy is not my business at all,
but my gut reactions aren't very good at sticking to their own

But reading Language Log's latest entry on this issue, I realized what
the difference is. Official languages policy as I'm accustomed to it
is a tool of inclusion. It's there so people can live in English or in
French. It's in no way stopping people from doing other languages as
well. Our legislation is just making sure that I can read the
instructions on my cough syrup in English and do my taxes in English
and get helped in English when I frantically call 1-800-O-CANADA
because my wallet was stolen and I need to know how to replace all my
ID. But you can still serve your deli customers in Polish, you can
still provide TTC information in Tagalog, and you can still label your
food products in Mandarin as long as the English and French are on
there somewhere too. It's setting out a minimum standard that anyone
is welcome to exceed.

But this proposed American policy would be (at least if some of the
loudest people had their way) a tool of exclusion. Rather than making
sure people would be able to live in English, it would be trying to
prevent people from using other languages. It would be setting out a
ceiling and preventing anyone from exceeding that standard.

I'm far too deeply immersed in Canada's official languages culture and
in multilingualism in general to even make a nominal attempt at
comparing how worthwhile these two opposing approaches are. I'm too
accustomed to what I'm familiar with to evaluate it objectively. All
I'm saying here is this explains why the idea seemed so viscerally
wrong to me - because they would be using official languages policy to
do the exact opposite of what I'm used to it doing.

This makes me wonder what the situation is like in other countries.
Are other countries' official languages policies inclusionary, setting
a minimum standard? Or are they exclusionary, creating a ceiling that
you can't exceed?

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