Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A resurgent interest in bilingualism

Given my own research interests, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Toronto Star columnist Graham Fraser's new book, Sorry, I Don't Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won't Go Away.

My copy finally arrived yesterday, and I'm about one-third of the way through it - hoping to be finished by tomorrow, after a good afternoon's read at Sackville's Bridge Street Cafe. I'll have my full comments up soon - so far it's a very enjoyable and provocative read, meshing a good overview of the history of Canadian language policy with personal insights of a multi-decade career in Canadian journalism.

I wanted to put a post up, however, to draw your attention to Chantal Hebert's column in today's Star about the book, and its implications for Canadian political life. As she points out, Canadian politics is indeed at a crossroads, as many of the would-be Liberal leaders are woefully unilingual, and some of the more prominent bilingual candidates (such as Martin Cauchon and Domenic Leblanc) have bowed out of the race.

Frankly, I find it incredible, and saddening, that would-be federal politicians haven't taken it upon themselves to learn both of Canada's official languages. Apart from the political implications of being unable to express oneself clearly to 25% (or 75%, depending on one's mother tongue) of the electorate, it sets a poor example for younger Canadians considering whether second language acquisition is necessary. North Americans generally have an abysmal record when it comes to language learning, and it is bound to catch up with our society eventually. Our students should be encouraged to become multilingual, and yet even bare-bones bilingualism is seemingly becoming too much to expect of a would-be Prime Minister.

I will have more to say on this topic in the next few days. But for now, I have a rather stimulating book to finish.

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At 3:56 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I typed this letter on Apr.18/06, after hearing about Graham Fraser’s book

Dear Matt:

Thank you for your posts on Graham Fraser’s new book regarding Canada’s still largely non-existent bilingualism. I’ve just heard some commentary on French radio (and now I do not know how to continue this sentence: normally I would say “French CBC”, except that it is not; it’s “Radio-Canada”, and this too is a bilingualism problem) about the book, and a quick search with Alta Vista took me to your blog.

I have a personal, rather than a political take on this matter. I would like to be able to speak French well enough to lecture at the university level. (Yes, I am another academic.) This is a purely personal objective of mine. I want to be able to participate in French culture, in French. That is all. That is my fundamental motivation. I don’t need it for my job. I don’t need it to make more money. I don’t need it for any of the other justifications that we normally use.

Unfortunately, I have always found spoken languages difficult to learn. So do many other people who are visual rather than auditory learners. To help my oral French, I would like to be able to live in French, in Peterborough, that is in Peterborough, Ontario. Or in Toronto, Ontario. I somehow feel that I have a right to be able to do this, by virtue of the fact that I am a Canadian citizen. Whether I was born or not born Francophone should be irrelevant (and to use that as a qualifying criterion is borderline racist). In other words, I feel that I have a right to “service-in-French”, regardless of my mother tongue or ethnic origin (which happens to be Hungarian, but that’s also irrelevant). And this is where the personal meets the political. Service-in-French apparently is not there for me. The typical condescending and patronizing explanation I get runs like this: service-in-French is there only for French-Canadians who are not able to speak English, the clear implication being that there is something mentally defective about people who are unable to learn something as simple as spoken English. From this point of view, service-in-French is there to help disabled people, and since I am not “disabled” I am asking for something that is not there for me. My request is seen as unfair. Something like a physically fit person asking for a wheelchair just because he does not feel like walking.

I would like to emphasize that it is always at the personal level where the political tire hits the road. It is at the personal level that individuals experience the shortcomings of present-day bilingualism. Service-in-French, or the lack of it, takes place at the personal level. When I walk into Chapters or Indigo (media monopolies allowed to be created by virtue of federal policy), and ask for books and magazines in French, it is always at the personal-conversation level that I am told that they do not carry books in French because French people do not buy books or magazines. Nobody has yet said that “French people don’t read”, but I am mentally prepared to keep my cool when that does happen.

So what exactly does the Canadian bilingualism policy say about living bilingual in Canada? What actual support exists to enable a Canadian, any Canadian, to live in French if he or she so wishes? I am curious. What does the policy have to do with the personal everyday life of an ordinary Canadian? If the answer is “Nothing” then perhaps we have already obtained a very good diagnosis of what ails bilingualism policy in its current form.

Stephen Regoczei
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7B8

At 4:34 pm, Blogger Matt said...


The core dimension of your concerns about official bilingualism seem to be summed up in the following:
"I feel that I have a right to “service-in-French”, regardless of my mother tongue or ethnic origin ... Service-in-French apparently is not there for me. The typical condescending and patronizing explanation I get runs like this: service-in-French is there only for French-Canadians who are not able to speak English"

My studies of official bilingualism would indicate that you're partly correct on that, but not entirely so. Service-in-French is intended by governments, federal and provincial, for French-Canadians (or francophone immigrants to provinces other than Quebec), regardless of their ability to speak English. Indeed, in many provinces where there has been an ongoing battle for French-language government services, such as Alberta and Manitoba, most francophones do speak English, but claim the right to French-language government services based on the concept of Canadian duality. Under Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the right to French-language education is guaranteed to those with French as their mother tongue, and this right is exercised by many parents who are fluent in English.

There is, however, a limitation on the exercise of this right, and that is that minority-language government services are offered at the head offices of government, or where there is significant demand - the clause for education reads "where numbers warrant". In other words, there must be a sizeable population in order to justify regional French-language services.

This is also the approach that the Ontario government has taken with its French Language Services Act, created in 1986. Peterborough is not a designated region for FLS because there is not a sizeable French-speaking (defined by the population with French as their mother tongue) population there. Toronto is a different matter. There is a sizeable francophone population there, and services available (bookstores, clubs, schools, university programmes, ACFO) to those who want to live in French. You do have to look harder for them though, as Toronto doesn't have a "French neighbourhood" the same way as it does for other ethnic groups.

It's not the objective of government policy to make bilingualism a coast-to-coast lived experience, and never has been. Rather, these policies are intended to promote government services, education and community development where there are significant concentrations of people for whom French (or English in Quebec) is their mother tongue. Should an individual Canadian wish to live in their second language, they will need to move to (or live in, or spend significant amounts of time) a community where the other official language is a lived language for a sizeable number of people.

Official bilingualism is a policy primarilly aimed at official language minority populations (English in Quebec, French in the rest of the country), to provide services so that they can live in the official language of their choice. The limitation of "where numbers warrant" is a practical one on how far these policies can reasonably be implemented.

For Canadians of the majority language community, the opportunities to become bilingual are mainly provided through the education system - French immersion, supports for French-language programs at universities, exchange programs for students and teachers. Government support for Radio-Canada and print media are intended to supplement this. For adult Canadians, the government-sponsored opportunities are fewer, but there are university-level courses available. It is, admittedly, very difficult to practice one's French in communities where there is not a francophone population, however.


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