[lg policy] Canada: British Colombia's language policy is woefully inadequate.
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Wed Feb 3 15:16:16 UTC 2010
Vancouver's own not-so-quiet revolution
City has far to go before it can match diversity reflected by
participants in upcoming Winter Games
By Henry Yu, Special to the SunFebruary 2, 2010
StoryPhotos ( 1 )
UBC academic Henry Yu says B.C.'s language policy is woefully inadequate.
On the eve of the Winter Olympics, there is a not-so-quiet revolution
going on here every bit as important as that which transformed Quebec
a half a century ago, even if the anglophone journalists and
commentators of this city and of our nation seem oblivious to its
consequences. Inexorably, the tenor of civic debate in this city is no
longer being carried out only in the colonial language of English. But
rather than in French, it is in a multiplicity of Asian languages --
Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Tagalog -- that the voices of people
long silenced are talking. What are they discussing? Important issues
that bespeak both the deep colonial past of "British" Columbia and the
need for a frank and open discussion about our collective future.
Our city will soon be over 50% "visible minority," with the vast
majority of these "non-whites" of Asian heritage. The very term
"visible minority" has become an oddity, raising questions about who
is the "minority" in a city that has such strong historical and
demographic connections across the Pacific. When Captain John Meares
arrived in 1788 to be greeted by Chief Maquinna of the Nuu-chah-nulth,
there were Chinese aboard his ship. Right from the earliest moments
that migrants from around the world came to the land of first nations
peoples in B.C., we have had both trans-Pacific Asian and
trans-Atlantic European migrants.
It struck me last weekend when I was shopping in Kitsilano what an
aberration that neighbourhood is -- one of the few areas in Vancouver
that has not been transformed in the last three decades by new
migration from Asia. Kits, for instance, does not have a significant
ethnic Chinese Canadian presence in a city where almost every other
neighbourhood has percentages of ethnic Chinese that range from 20% to
55%. What is wrong with Kits? The same thing that is wrong with so
many newsrooms and boardrooms in Vancouver, where a quick glance
around at who shapes opinion and leadership decisions reveals a
blinding uniformity of faces as white as driven snow.
It's odd that the upcoming Winter Olympics, whose participants also
used to reflect the dominance of northern European origins, have
become quite diverse with Asian faces in skating and skiing events.
And yet our city, so proud of our diversity, has still so far to go in
understanding just what it means to have a majority of its residents
of Asian heritage.
Canadians are wonderful at criticizing other societies for inequity
and their inability to overcome racial discrimination and colonialism.
Canadians helped lead worldwide opinion against apartheid in South
Africa. If the major universities in South Africa after apartheid had
a majority of their students non-white and nearly every single one of
their administrators blindingly white, Canadians would know that this
was a legacy of white supremacy and further change was necessary.
And, yet, here in Vancouver, our major universities have a majority of
non-white students, but we retain an overwhelmingly white leadership,
and yet no one even notices that this might be the legacy of a long
history of apartheid and white supremacy. Why not? Perhaps it is
because we had a relatively peaceful transition from apartheid and so
we are able to be deaf and blind to its legacies here. We are so quiet
about our colonial past that we so easily forget it existed.
There are many legacies of our colonial past and the white supremacy
that undergirded it-- residential schools, the reserve system, the
Indian Act, Chinese Exclusion, the Continuous Journey Act, housing
covenants in Shaughnessy and other neighbourhoods that prevented Jews,
Asians, and natives from buying houses. We have overcome much of the
racial discrimination of the past and we continue to deal with many of
the problems left unresolved, but the most dangerous are those
legacies to which we are deaf and blind.
One of the major unresolved legacies of colonialism and white
supremacy in B.C. is our language policy. We are so proud that
businesses in Vancouver can advertise for workers who need to speak
Chinese or Punjabi or Hindi or French or German, and that it is
possible in this multilingual city of diversity that we can fill the
applicant pool. But we are misled by the availability of bilingual
speakers who can read and write both English and Chinese, or English
and Punjabi. We did not educate and create them -- many of them came
here already functionally bilingual or learned English to supplement
existing fluencies. We will ruin their children.
My parents spoke multiple dialects of Chinese when they arrived in
Canada and learned English within five years. We spoke English and
Cantonese at home, and I eventually received a full scholarship to
Princeton to do my PhD. But I took 10 years of French in school and
can barely order a sandwich in Quebec. My Cantonese is good enough to
order food and, in an emergency, ask for a bathroom. You are better
off coming to Canada as a 10-year-old than being born here. If you
come as a 10-year old, you have a chance to learn English even as you
retain some fluency in whatever non-English language you learned as a
child. If you are born here, you will grow up in an anglophone society
that derides "accented" English (except if you have an alluring
British accent). At the end of K-12 education, you will only be able
to speak and write English and perhaps have enough baby talk in your
home language that as an 18-year-old you might speak as if you were an
We are complacent and cruel. We ask our job seekers to have multiple
language skills so that our companies can compete in a global economy
where Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, and other Asian languages are a
tremendous competitive advantage. We do not have any problem finding
such employees. And yet we produce monolingual children who are
ill-equipped compared to their immigrant parents. Why? Over a century
of anglophone dominance in B.C. led to policies designed to erase
non-English language use among children. Residential schools set out
to eradicate aboriginal language use; hiring policies rewarded native
English speakers and reduced those who had the "wrong" accent to
subordinate roles even as they were useful as translators. Perversely,
speaking only English was considered superior to speaking multiple
languages, as long as the English had the right accent and the face
was the right colour.
Edmonton, a city that Vancouverites almost universally deride as
uncivilized and backward -- we have sushi they have cattle and oil! --
has had bilingual Mandarin-English programs from K-12 for 26 years,
with 13 schools and thousands of children learning Mandarin and
English on a 50/50 basis. There is a healthy mix of children who spoke
Chinese and English as toddlers before entering these programs in
kindergarten, so that kids in their daily interactions feel that the
two languages are equally useful and important and feel motivated to
learn both. Every time I mention to a Vancouverite that Edmonton has
had these programs for over a quarter of a century, and ask them how
many schools in Vancouver have such programs, they assume that we have
such a progressive city that we must have dozens. We have none.
Beginning in fall 2010, after the Olympics, the school boards of
Coquitlam, Vancouver, and Burnaby will begin early start Mandarin
programs. Only Coquitlam has made its program open to all learners.
Vancouver and Burnaby have made the mistake of limiting entrance to
English speakers only. These classes need kids who can speak Mandarin.
Decades of scholarly research has shown that without Mandarin speakers
in the classroom, English speakers will not effectively learn how to
speak Chinese. Like my 10 years of French from Grade 3 to Grade 12,
not having native French speakers in the classroom led to a stunted
language learning experience.
We are undergoing a not-so-quiet revolution in this city. The daily
circulation of our Chinese language newspapers dwarf the readership of
The Vancouver Sun and Province, and our common future will be
determined in a variety of languages, both English and non-English. If
we cannot cure ourselves of the colonial legacies of making our
children monolingual in English, we will stunt the next generation and
waste the incredible human capital that we welcome each year to out
Henry Yu is a professor of history at the University of British of
Columbia. He was born in Vancouver and graduated from UBC, the son of
immigrants from China, but also the fourth generation great-grandson
of Chinese migrants who came to B.C. in the 19th century.
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