[lg policy] Canada: Bilingual? Whom are we kidding?
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Tue Nov 22 15:04:19 UTC 2011
Bilingual? Whom are we kidding?
After 42 years and billions spent, just 7 per cent of anglophone
Canadians can carry on a conversation in French
By Marian Scott, The Gazette November 22, 2011 9:09 AM
Since the federal government passed the Official Languages Act in
1969, many Canadians have come to see bilingualism as our
nation’s defining trait. Now, a forthcoming book raises
questions about whether Canada can even lay claim to being a bilingual
Since the federal government passed the Official Languages Act in
1969, many Canadians have come to see bilingualism as our nation’s
defining trait. Now, a forthcoming book raises questions about whether
Canada can even lay claim to being a bilingual country.
MONTREAL - The best thing Stacy Legallee’s parents ever did was to
send him to French school.
Now 47 and fluent not just in French and English, but also in Spanish,
the well-travelled musician and studio engineer says knowing both
official languages has enriched his life immeasurably.
“I think if anything, it’s one of the great assets that Canada has, to
declare itself a bilingual country,” said Legallee, who is pursing a
degree in English literature at Concordia University after a 30-year
“That’s why even after years of travelling around and working in
different countries, I’m proud to be a Canadian.”
In the 42 years since Ottawa passed the Official Languages Act, many
Canadians have come to see bilingualism as the country’s defining
But the recent furor over the appointment of a unilingual federal
auditor general, and the revelation that two executives at the Caisse
de dépôt et Placement du Québec can’t speak French, have showed up the
cracks in Canada’s bilingual façade.
Now, a coming book raises questions over whether Canada can even lay
claim to be a bilingual country at all.
While many Canadians uphold bilingualism as a quintessential value,
that belief is not actually borne out by the proportion of citizens
who speak both official languages, according to Life After Forty:
Official Languages Policy in Canada, edited by Jack Jedwab and
Rodrigue Landry (Queen’s Policy Studies Series, McGill-Queen’s
University Press, due out next month).
After four decades and billions of dollars spent on official
bilingualism, just seven per cent of anglophones outside Quebec are
able to carry on a conversation in French, writes Jedwab, executive
director of the Association for Canadian Studies.
Overall, 17 per cent of Canadians speak both official languages,
mainly thanks to Quebecers, of whom 41 per cent are bilingual.
The popularity of French immersion has boosted French skills among
youth, with nearly 15 per cent of English-speaking Canadians age 15-24
reporting they can speak French.
Still, that lags far behind Europe, Jedwab noted, where 56 per cent of
the population is able to hold a conversation in a second language,
and 28 per cent of the population can converse in three languages.
In fact, bilingualism in English Canada is only slightly higher than
in the United States, considered a unilingual bastion, he said.
Bilingualism in Canada has always been considered a matter of personal
choice, and the main thrust of federal policy has been to provide
services for official-language minorities and ensure both language
groups are represented within the civil service, Jedwab said.
The capital of bilingualism is Quebec, where 41 per cent of the
population speaks both French and English. This despite the fact the
province has only one official language, French.
Seven out of 10 Quebec anglophones are bilingual.
For many students milling about Concordia’s downtown campus, speaking
two or three languages is a daily routine.
“You get to understand people more and different cultures more,” said
finance student Maram Witwit, 25, who speaks fluent French, English
“You can express yourself easily to other people no matter what their
culture,” she added.
But it’s another story outside Quebec and the so-called bilingualism
belt from Moncton, N.B., to Ottawa, Jedwab says.
“There’s a big gap between our message about bilingualism and the
extent to which we are bilingual,” he said.
“We are nowhere near as bilingual collectively as we should be. And
that’s not only true of parts of the country outside the bilingual
belt. Even within the bilingual belt, I don’t think the Ottawa
anglophone population is as bilingual as it should be,” Jedwab added.
Matthew Hayday, an associate professor of history at the University of
Guelph and contributor to the book, said one reason for Canadians’
lacklustre linguistic performance is that learning the country’s other
official language has always been considered voluntary.
That attitude spilled over into the current auditor general debate, he said.
“In English-speaking Canada, there has long been this attitude among a
substantial portion of the population that language skills are
optional when it comes to job performance within the federal
government,” he said.
“Despite 40 years of the Official Languages Act, the idea that someone
would be denied access to a senior position of management, even if a
good portion of their job will be dealing with French media, and
supervising francophone civil servants, the fact that that person does
not speak French is viewed by many as an unacceptable reason for
denying them that position,” Hayday added.
But Hayday slammed the decision to appoint Michael Ferguson.
“I think it’s appalling that he was short-listed, given that
bilingualism was a set criteria,” he said.
“It sends the message that the government is not firmly committed to
upholding the Official Languages Act. That could have disturbing
ramifications to those who believe that this is a core mandate of the
federal government,” he said.
Hayday said recent gestures like displaying portraits of the Queen in
Canadian embassies and adding the word “Royal” to the names of the
armed forces are symptomatic of a reaction against a redefinition of
Canadian identity beginning in the 1960s under Prime Minister Lester
Pearson. Prior to that, the French language was marginalized in the
federal government, he said.
That could bode ill for official languages policy, he warned.
“If government is not committed, it’s possible that the Official
Languages Act will be weakened,” Hayday said.
However, Jedwab dismissed the notion that Canada could turn its back
on 40 years of progress since the adoption of the Official Languages
Act under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
“What Trudeau put into place, I don’t think we’re going to be turning
that back, even if some people are grumpy about it,” he said.
Seventeen per cent of all Canadians speak both official languages.
Forty-one per cent of Quebecers are bilingual.
Nearly 15 per cent of English-speaking Canadians age 15-24 report they
can speak French.
In Europe, 56 per cent of the population speaks a second language and
28 per cent can converse in three languages.
Seventy per cent of Quebec anglophones are bilingual.
mascot at montrealgazette.com
Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Bilingual+Whom+kidding/5746093/story.html#ixzz1eRlLlg00
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