Monday, March 27, 2006

Graham Fraser, "Sorry, I Don't Speak French"

Canadian politics often seems inspired by the ostrich - if there is a problem, our leaders seem to think that bury their heads in the sand will make it go away. This is clearly the case when we look at the history of Canadian language policy, a subject that Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser tackles head on with his new book, Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian crisis that won't go away published this month by McClelland and Stewart. The book should be on the reading list of any aspiring Canadian politician, and more than a few top bureaucrats and university administrators.

The subject matter of this book is one in which I am intensely interested, as a fellow anglophone working on language policy issues. Fraser approaches his subject matter from a sympathetic perspective, as someone who learned French in university, and who wants to see official bilingualism succeed. As opposed to many who have written about the language policies that began in the Pearson and Trudeau years, Fraser does not advocate a complete rejection of these policies, despite the flaws in their implementation. Rather, he takes a hard look at what the original objectives of these policies were and how they have been implemented to date, then makes recommendations to try to make these policies work.

Canada's language policy has never been about "forcing the French tongue down people's throats", despite the claims of many who would critique it on this basis. Nor is it about forcing all Canadians to be bilingual. Rather, it is about trying to create the conditions for a viable political community in which both official language communities - English and French - are able to co-exist and have access to a full range of government services and opportunities. To make this function, a significant percentage of the population, particularly those working in federal institutions, will need to be bilingual. The challenge is to make these institutions truly bilingual, and to foster a political culture in which those who aspire to such leadership positions consider bilingualism a prerequisite. In this, Fraser argues, the policies have fallen short.

One of the strongest sections of this book is Fraser's history of Canadian language policy. Drawing on several key works from the secondary literature, he also turns to the two intellectual fathers of Canada's language policy - B&B Commissioners Frank Scott and Andre Laurendeau - to examine how they conceived of these policies, and how their visions continue to shape how we think about language in this country.

Profiles of Canada's two main "bilingual" cities are revealing about the successes of the last 40 years of Canadian language policy. The Montreal of Fraser's book is now the French-first city dreamed of by Bill 101's founders. Anglophone Montrealers have the highest levels of bilingualism in the country, and in most of the city, the default language of interaction is French. Ottawa, meanwhile, has proven more resistant to official bilingualism - with levels of bilingualism in the service industries far lower than one might expect of the nation's capital. While Fraser's evidence for this state of affairs draws heavilly on personal experience, it does reflect the sociolinguistic literature, and adds a personal take on the evolution of these cities. Indeed, the personal anecdotes peppered throughout the text make for an emininently readable book.

In critiquing the failures of Canadian language policy, Fraser turns his attention to the persistent problem of the "catch-up" approach to bilingualism that still prevails in Ottawa. Functional bilingualism is still far from a reality in much of the civil service, with many civil servants lacking the language skills needed to advance to middle- or senior-management. As a result, millions of dollars are spent annually on expensive language training programs to train middle-aged civil servants to speak their second language.

Why is this still the case, thirty-five years after the federal government began funding second-language instruction in the elementary and secondary schools of the country through the Official Languages in Education Program? As Fraser points out, while opportunities do exist for second language acquisition, these skills are still undervalued in the Canadian psyche and education system. Universities teach French as a foreign language, and do not require knowledge of Canada's other official language for admission or graduation - even in such disciplines where one might think such a skill would be needed for post-graduate employment, such as journalism, political science and public administration. Unlike European countries, where knowledge of multiple languages is valued, English Canada is mired in a North American mindset which sees English as the global language, and doesn't see the need for bi- or multilingualism. Fraser also questions one of the sacred cows of the current Canadian language policy regime - French immersion. Critiquing the pedagogy of French immersion has, unfortunately, become tantamount to critiquing bilingualism. Fraser argues that it may be time for a frank re-evaluation of French immersion pedagogy, so that the desired outcome - a fluently bilingual class of citizen - is actually produced, rather than a cohort of individuals who lack certain critical skills in writing and grammar.

The issues Fraser raises are certainly pertinent ones, and have too long passed in silence. It is as if with the passage of Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, everyone assumed that Canadian language policy was now formed, and could be left alone to function. Fraser has diagnosed some key maladies with the system that crucially need to be addressed. The Liberal Party, for one, is an institution which needs to take these issues to heart. An effective leader needs to be able to communicate in both English and French, and many of their contenders cannot. Any aspiring politician in this country should have bilingualism as a basic credential - and multilingualism would be an additional asset. Our leaders need to be able to speak, and listen, directly to both official language communities, without resorting to a third party. Hopefully, we will come to a means of instilling this message into the Canadian political discourse. But, as Graham Fraser points out, we are still a way from reaching this point, and action will be needed to correct the drifting course of Canadian language policy.

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At 2:37 pm, Blogger Pete said...

"Universities teach French as a foreign language, and do not require knowledge of Canada's other official language for admission or graduation -"

This is not completely true. Some institutions, such as Carleton or the University of Ottawa (both in Ottawa), require second language credits at least at the Intermediate, that is second year, level for their more advanced programmes (Such as Humanities, Public Affairs and Policy Management at Carleton and for an honours degree at U of O). While this does not guarantee that students will know enough French to use it in active life, the impetous is there.

Some Grad schools, like U.Vic's M.A. in history programme or RMC's civilian PhD programme in War and Peace Studies require a working knowledge of French, as does, if I'm not mistaken, Carleton's Public History programme at the M.A. level.

Otherwise a good post,


At 3:26 pm, Blogger Matt said...

You're certainly correct that certain programmes across the country do require second language credits. For my MA and PhD in History at U. of Ottawa, there was a French language requirement (although the level of French required to pass it was laughable). Graduate programmes are much more likely to require second language skills on the whole.

What Graham Fraser was pointing out, as Keith Spicer did in the 1970s, was that second languages used to be obligatory courses in high schools across the country, and required for university admission. As the educaiton system moved towards more options for students, languages (particularly French) became optional at most institutions, removing one of the main impetuses for students to continue their language studies. He sees this, and I agree, as one of the reasons why anglophone Canadians are not pursuing second language study in a particularly active way.

At 5:01 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Graham Fraser, intelligent and sympathetic though he is, fails to ask a very simple question: do anglophones want to learn French? Having studied and worked at the University of Ottawa it is painfully clear to me that most do not, and that the ones who do are woefully unaware of the effort required to acquire a second language. Indeed, if a referendum were organized in English Canada, asking citizens whether they would prefer to live in a genuinely bilingual Canada (including Quebec) or would rather see Quebec secede and live in a monolingual English Canada, I strongly suspect the latter option would gain majority support.

At 6:14 pm, Blogger Lt Smash said...

Well, Anonymous,

I think you have summed up the choice rather succinctly. I think all English Canadians need to be aware that the two choices are linked. Do we want to build a and maintain a bilingual country? Many people want to ignore the question and keep Québec in Canada. Unfortunately, that is not an option.

If we want a country that includes Québec, we need to listen and understand what both Graham Fraser and Matt Hayday are writing about, and take the appropriate public policy decisions.

I hope that your research Matt, and Fraser's popular exposé will lead to some soul-searching among the linguistically lazy.

At 1:41 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Years ago, I left Quebec, believing also that I was leaving the French environment behind. The government's programs in social engineering of French into English society are artificial, pointless and offensive. On the other hand, Quebec govt is systematically trying to suppress English usage via its Fascist language laws. In the greater context of North America, French is irrelevant. Mandarin more useful language to learn be. French is a dying language. Government imposition of French is akin to humping a corpse back to life. Lots of perspiration (money) and little gain.
Quebec can secede, fine by me. I was born in Canada, but would rather see the country break up than live in one whose social polices make me want to spit on it in contempt and frustration.

At 6:34 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The corporate world and anglophone countries, notably the US and Great Britain, have been engaged in their own "social engineering" for decades, pushing for dominance of English in business, trade, culture and diplomacy. It is no more legitimate for a government to encourage or promote a language than it is for private or other interests to do so. It is also important to note that equal treatement does not mean identical treatement. En tant qu'anglophone, moi je dis vive le français et le multilinguisme ! Remaining within the monolinguistic anglo-hegemonic world that tries to pass itself off as "global culture" is boring !

At 11:09 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the bigger question is how do words affect a human being? Words are the catalysts to emotion. The language you hear, either in conversation, through the media or through your own internal dialogue is the tool that connects you to different emotions. You all know how marketing firms use striking phrases to influence your feelings about their products, or how great poetry can make you laugh or cry. But the truth of the matter is that english is a language marred in conflict. Since its inception, the english culture has been at war with itself. I'm talking about Great Britain firstly, with England and its conflicts with Scotland and Ireland. And then further down the line with the American Revolution and other colonial conflicts. The fact is that the english language is the primary tool for the expansion of the military-industrial complex, a system that is based in competition and domination of others. So it is no surprise if today's America is a melting pot where the english language is defined as the one and only language, but where the segragation and alienation of other cultures continues to detriment of the greater whole. In Canada, those who would agree with the mono-linguistic viewpoint have fallen victim to a narrow and divisive world view, propogated by the elephant that is America.

Now if we look at France, it too have had conflicts with their colonies, but it was never at war with itself, such as Great Britain. It is important to note that la Nouvelle-France (French Canada) never went to war with France. There a human solidarity in the french culture that does not exist in the english culture.

This difference has marked each language. If words and language are the catalyst to emotion, then I believe that French provides humanity with a more united world view, and access to greater harmonious emotions rather than the divisive sort that is projected by the main-stream english media and entertainment. French is said to be the language of Love.

This is would explain why Québec integrates strict language policies into law, not only to assure the survival of the French language, but to instill in its people a more humane and caring worldview, more often than not absent in the mono-linguistic worldview of the english culutre.

My particular insight into this matter comes from the fact that my mother is British and my father is a Fransaskois, a french-canadian from Saskatchewan. But the problem with the separitist impetus coming out of Québec is that it goes against the united world view I already expressed. If Québec does separate, they will be leaving French speaking citizens outside its borders at the mercy of the mono-linguistic majority in Canada. Which means those French speaking citizens outside of Québec will either have to assimilate into the conflicted english culture or move to Québec to receive services in their own language. That is why it is important for bilinguism to succeed. To create a harmonious co-existence between human beings in this country, English Canada needs the insight of the French Worldview and les Québecois need to remain in solidarity with the French speaking citizens outside their borders, or the ideals of solidarity it expresses will just be a hypocritical philosophy.

By championing bilingualism, Canada is creating an example of harmonious co-existence between cultures, an example that today's world is in desperate need of. We all know this example won't come from the States...

At 4:28 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commenters talk about bilingualism as if it is free like air. It is anything but free. The cumulative cost of this Trudeau-instigated experiment in social engineering is now mounting into the Billions of $$. That is only the visible federal part of it.

This kind of waste is typical of government's "reverse Midas Touch" - that is to say, what is touched by government turns to shit. And it is thanks to your hard earned tax dollars.

To compound this waste, perfectly competent unilingual individuals are being screwed out of public sector jobs in favour of those otherwise inferior, but who satisfy bilingualism criteria. How does that help the country operate?
In the federal public service, the working language is English and always will be - the pretense of bilingualism is merely a costly sham to appease those with political motivations.

Some seem to have a real problem with the dominance of the English language. English enjoys its international acceptance today, in part because it has developed by being open - incorporating words and expressions from many other languages. And on the other side you have the paranoid French trying to put a stop to the introduction of English words into their language. Such defensive measures are surely a sign of a language in decline.

At 12:20 pm, Blogger Jean-Louis Trudel said...

Ah yes, I see the courageously anonymous Anonymous speaks of "perfectly competent unilingual individuals" being crowded out of government jobs. Amazing what ideology—or self-interest, since one suspects the brave Anonymous is not bilingual—can make you swallow.

The fact is that there is much less room in the federal public service for the unilingual francophone than for the unilingual anglophone, and that in practice, as he himself recognizes (apparently unaware of the contradictions of what he passes off as thought), most of the public service is unilingual anglophone. And it tries to administer a country that is at least 20% francophone in population, with many more people and institutions finding their origins in its French history. Hmmm, I wonder why that hasn't been working so well...

Indeed, we should ask what has been the success of the prevalence of the perfectly competent unilingual anglophones. Over the last thirty years, our national government has presided over two attempts to separate by the province of Québec, seen the creation within Parliament of a durable group of separatists, and countenanced numerous linguistic crises.

Since the first Québec referendum (1980) failed by a much larger margin than the second one (1995), at a time when bilingualism was still an actively pursued goal in English-speaking Canada, it might well be worth asking if the mainly anglophone public service is not perfectly incompetent at keeping our country together, something that we might naively take to be the first priority of any national government.

Of course, Mr Anonymous wants Québec to secede, so it is perfectly understandable that he argues for more of the policies that have worked so well in the past to that end. Another effort and I'm sure the next referendum will pass...

At 3:38 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had thought this thread was dead and gone, then presto! a new post.

Mr. Trudel (pseudonym??) seems to have a problem with my default "anonymous" handle. Whatever. This is the internet. Trust no one.

In my last year of high school (in Kbec) one of the mandatory courses was Canadian history. The title of the text book was "Unity in Diversity". I recall even back then thinking what an irony laden crock of sh*t that title was. Kanaduh was a political and cultural abortion straight out of the post-colonial conception gate.

There are indeed plenty of English idiots about, as Mr. Trudel suggests. They are the ones trying to hold this geopolitical miscarriage together in concert with their French federalist bosum buddies, spooning out billions of tax dollars to play "Kaptain Kanaduh" and bury the separatists with that "unity in diversity" myth. Graham Fraser is on the team. (Sorry, I work for Kapn Kanaduh). These buffoons are also the ones who allow Kbec to operate their petty fascist language laws while bending over both ways to subvert our language and heritage everywhere else with ridiculous accomodation and support of French and multiculturalism. When Graham Fraser bleats about language accomodation, you can be sure about who is listening and who is laughing derisively. Ask Howard Galgonov.

But that has only a little to do with the compentence of someone in the trenches like a capable clerk or a programmer who just needs a job.

Yes, I believe we would be better off if Kbec went its own way. That would at least put the kybosh on a lot of what is going on in Ontario and NB. However I doubt it will ever happen. Quebec claims to be a "nation". The problem is that you cant be a nation and be hopelessly addicted to the federal dole. Quebec is a pretend nation. The idea of being a nation is compelling, but the nuts and bolts of creating it, not to mention the tab, are simply too inconvenient to for all but the hardcore types deal with. Separation would entail some financial hardship. That is where National Pride hits the wall in Quebec. Years of Xtreme Socialism have left your wannabe state in a fiscal shambles. Guess you will have to be satisfied with calling the provincial legislature the "National Assembly" and representing yourselves at Francophonie confabs.

At 2:55 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

D'être un Canadien et de parles en Français et Anglaise est un privilège, et un avantage de nos couture, pas un problem avec notre identité.

I mean c'mon! we're not talking about cramming the language down throats of people in rural Saskatchewan, we're talking about our public institutions and general infrastructure. He's perfectly right, Montreal is the truly bilingual city - why? because it's in Quebec obviously. Just like Ottawa's failure as the Anglo-equivalent happens to be caused because it's in Ontario (no matter how few steps it is to the 18 year old drinking haven known as Hull).

Being a bilingual culture is a privelage and an advantage of our culture, not a problem!

Drew, Montreal.


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