Stable Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Canada

This is a slightly edited version of one of my posts on the LingAnth mailing-list. Susan Ervin-Tripp had posted a message about endangered languages. I mused about possibilities for bilingualism or multilingualism to be stable. Claire Bowern described such patterns. As a follow-up, Peter Patrick mentioned the Canadian situation. As a Québécois, I felt compelled to post something about what I perceive Canadian bilingualism and multilingualism to be like. This is not meant as an expert opinion on the situation.

Without further ado…

Glad to see such an interesting discussion about language diversity. My two (Canadian) cents, to keep the ball rolling. (I’m sending those comments as a French-speaking linguistic anthropologist from Montreal who is not a specialist of Canada.)
Bilingualism in Canada is quite specific. Unless otherwise specified, the term “bilingual” refers to individuals who are fluent in both French and English. There is a perceived imbalance in the degree of “bilingualism” among French- and English-speakers. Bilingualism in other languages tends to be treated separately. Fluency is evaluated using many criteria, including “accent” and even eloquence.
English and French are the (only) two official languages in Canada. Official status for both languages has important consequences in federal politics and administration. Given the official status of both languages, bilingualism often implies advantages in professional placement. New Brunswick is the only province to be officially bilingual (it has the largest French-speaking population outside of Quebec); Quebec is officially French-speaking (with important political consequences); other provinces are officially English-speaking; territories follow federal regulations, though Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun has official status in Nunavut (not sure on the details).
Functional bilingualism can be said to be fairly stable in some specific regions. However, the situation in most French-speaking communities outside of Quebec is usually perceived as a potential switch from French to English: children of “inter-marriages” are likely to only speak English. This switch is perceived, in French-speaking communities, as tantamount to language loss. Language insecurity is at rather high levels in many French-speaking communities outside of Quebec.
In Quebec, the perceived likelihood that French would disappear has decreased dramatically over the past several years. In such a situation, bilingualism is infrequently perceived as a threat. French-speaking Quebeckers appear quite secure in their (our) language use and they (we) will often use English in multi-lingual situations, without any fear of language, status, or identity loss. Perhaps because of French language ideology, English-speakers fluent in French tend not to speak French with native speakers of the language (outside of formal contexts in which bilingualism might be expected).In short, the general model is one of monolingual communities (either French- or English-speaking) with bilingual individuals.Multilingualism is often seen as a completely separate issue. Apart from the status of the French language here, multilingualism in Canada seems fairly comparable to multilingualism in the U.S., despite significant differences in policies and in perceptions. A simplistic explanation of differences: for a relatively long time, Canadian policies have tended to emphasize the right for immigrant groups to “maintain their cultural identities,” including their native languages (the “mosaic” model instead of the “melting pot”); several languages besides English and Spanish are involved in social and political issues; multilingualism is probably more of an urban phenomenon throughout Canada (most of the Canadian population is concentrated in a relatively small number of cities); languages of First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Autochtonous groups are the object of some concern but relatively little attention is paid to those issues by the general population.
Regardless of these issues, the three-generation pattern [monolingual to bilingual to monolingual] is perceived as the dominant one throughout Canada, with relatively few exceptions. Stable bilingualism in, say, Punjabi and English or Italian and French is usually limited to specific neighborhoods in one of Canada’s largest cities.
To briefly go back to the original article which sparked this discussion, language diversity in Canada is probably increasing but the notion that this diversity might threaten English is rather uncommon. One of the reasons might be that functional bilingualism is perceived favourably by many people.

I’m posting it here because I’d be delighted to get feedback on it. More specifically, I’d like to be proven wrong on some of those issues. The best way to overcome one’s own biases is to publicly discuss them and it’s quite possible that my perspective or that my observations are flawed.

In fact, I noticed after posting that message that the Northwest Territories (NT) follow their own language policies, giving official status to several Aboriginal languages. From a page on language rights:

The Official Languages Act recognizes the following Official Languages: Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuktitut, (including Inuvialuktun and Inuinnaqtun) and Slavey (including North and South Slavey). They are given equal status according to the individual provisions of the Act.

I originally thought that Nunavut (NU) was the only Canadian Territory with its own language policies (different from federal policies). My impression is now that the status of Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun in NU is “more official” than the status of Aboriginal languages in NT, but that might have to do with the fact that NU’s governmental website seems to be fully available in Inuktitut/Inuinnaqtun and the NT one is only available in English. If I’m not mistaken, Yukon (YK) directly follows language policies from the federal government. Of the three territories, NU has the highest proportion of native speakers of neither English nor French (71.4% in 2001). NT has a much lower proportion of native speakers of neither English nor French (19.4% in 2001). YK only had 9.9% of native speakers of neither English nor French in 2001.

(Interesting statistics on languages in Canada’s provinces and territories.)One thing I’m really not sure about is how different Canada is from the United States in terms of languages of “First Nations/Aboriginal/Native/Autochtonous groups.” From colleagues who work with such groups, I get the impression that some groups are “better off” on one side of the U.S./Canada border than some other groups but that, maybe, the situation is fairly equivalent on either side. I would assume that such a pattern would apply to language policies but I don’t know much about any of this. My general impression is that Inuktitut, Ojibwa, and Cree languages are rather well-protected in Canada and that Navajo and Ojibwa are well-protected in the United States. This impression might have more to do with my rudimentary knowledge about the number of speakers of those languages in the United States and Canada than with actual language policies.Another thing that would merit discussion is the proportion of active bilinguals among French- and English-speaking communities. The overwhelming impression among French-speakers (at least in Quebec and New Brunswick) is that they (we) are the ones who “accommodate” English-speakers by speaking English even in situations in which French-speakers greatly outnumber English-speakers. However, it seems to be a contentious subject as English-speakers are said to feel that they are the ones accommodating French-speakers. Some English-speaking friends alluded to this, but language use is a bit too touchy a subject for conversation among “bilingual” friends. There’s a lot of research on those issues, some of which I have read, but I’m still not clear on what is really going there. So I was walking on egg shells when I wrote my message, trying not to make any specific claim about accommodation. As a French-speaker who has lived in both Quebec and New Brunswick, my strong impression is that we, in fact, do accommodate much more frequently than English-speakers would in most informal situations. I really would like to be proven wrong, as I can’t wrap my head around the discrepancy. I guess that this is the point at which I’m too much of a French-speaker.

Another reason for me to post that message here is that, apparently, a colleague would like to use my message (as is) in class. Not that I expect others to use it but in such a situation, it seems even more important for me to ensure that my message isn’t too inaccurate.

So, again, I’d be really happy if some people could post comments here telling me inaccuracies in my short explanation on language diversity in Canada.

13 thoughts on “Stable Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Canada”

  1. What ever happened to the concept of second language , there is such a thing as national identity, french people speak french otherwise it will not be France for very long

  2. A number of things happened to the concept of “second language,” as it can mean different things to different people. Sometimes, as the original thread alluded to, someone’s second language (or any number of languages known by a non-native speaker) may only serve very specific purposes. Such a situation would be conducive to stable multilingualism.
    Though many people have been associating national identity with linguistic identity since the 19th century, what evidence we do have of language change across diverse human groups does not support the idea that one is conditional on the other. That is, a group may retain a very strong national identity even though its members have mostly lost their main linguistic identity. And vice-versa (maintaining linguistic identity in the face of post-national identities).

  3. Interesting..I really wish that more of us English speaking Canadians would learn French, but we have such a large country it’s hard to unless you have more French native speakers in large numbers around the country.

    A woman in France was shocked when she listend to me ask her a question in my broken high-school French, saying Canada is bilingual, I must speak perfect French! I told her I live 3,000 km from the nearest French speaking town – She lives 100km from Germany, does she speak German?

    I think we as Canadians need to travel the country more. There should be more student exchanges for example. I think it’d be great if moer students had a chance to live in a French only speaking city, and vice-versa. It would certainly help break down barriers and grow national unity. I hope 🙂

  4. Well…
    Here in Montreal, the two solitudes are eventually coming together but there still are gaps. In some people’s opinion, Trudeau’s national dream (unity through bilingualism) is rarely a reality in the lives of people.

    Living outside of Canada does help us understand these issues in broader ways.

  5. Canada, has suffered an “attitude” problem towards the French language since immigration began following the Treaty of Paris of 1763. By 1776, with the American Revolutionary war, Anglo-American immigration into Canada had no understanding of the French history of Canada. These folks loyal to the Crown saw an “English” only colony, with an attitude that these French Canadians should darnwell start learning English and forget their French, because after all “the English won the war.” Then, we had immigration of Orangemen, mostly in the area which became known as Ontario, who were influencial in politics and the corporate affairs of the whole country, very much against any established language rights of French Canadians. And, so the conflict was intensified between French and English. Furthermore, French Canadians were denied religious freedom after the Conquest, and had to fight for this freedom which was ultimately granted with the QUEBEC ACT of 1774, and the reason why we have religious freedom for all who came to Canada since then. Religion in those years was very much tied to language: French and Roman Catholic; English and Protestantism. Thus the battle began with the educational systems. With the opening of the West for settlement in the 1870-80-90s, immigration from foreign countries also brought large scale disinterest, ignorance or outright prejudices against the learning of French, or prejudices against the acceptance of the use of French in Federal and Territorial/Provincial Government affairs. We even have an ugly history of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise in Western Canada in the 1920s, who made these debates their priority—organized prejudice and hatred of the French language and Catholics. While they did not like certain foreign immigration groups—Catholic ones, or Jews also, their main target were Western French Canadians, and they found a very large support group in the general Anglo population, and some people from immigrant groups, unsympathetic to the French language and religious rights in schools, etc, judging by the number of crosses that were burned in communites across the prairies in the late 1920s. While their powerful influence was reduced in the 1930s, and a great number of people still don’t want to face this part of our history, the aftermath never really died to this day. It surfaces still in the political life of this country, in newspaper columns and Web sites. Over the decades, some French Canadians i
    n the West gave up the battle. Some even changed their names because they could not stand the prejudice. It was especially bad for 40-50 years after 1900, and people still living today can tell you of their victimization, at schools and elsewhere in society.
    I believe now with the passing of time, with the new generations getting further away from this hostile history, there is more hope for a real bilingual country, where language is looked upon as an asset, not a subject of fights, where it is looked upon as it should have been all along–part of our democratic heritage. A true democracy has no place for this language hostility that has served only as an unhealthy denial of our French Canadian heritage —very much part of the whole of Canadian history and heritage.

  6. Thérèse,

    Thanks a lot for those comments. Much of what you say is quite compatible with what we learnt when I was in high school (in the 1980s). I do think that there is a move to move beyond the hostility, at least in places like Montreal. As a French-speaker with lots of contact among English-speaking Montrealers, I observed something radically different from what my mother described of her experience in the 1950s and 1960s.
    The religious dimension would merit further consideration but, at least in Quebec, the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution makes it difficult to see how religion really fits in the broader picture.

  7. I think that bilinguism is a good thing for us French Canadians but for English only people, I doubt it.

    How come then Ontario still has nostalgia for the Trudeu liberal government and would impede Conservatives obtaining a majority in Ottawa at the federal level. How come Ontario which is 96% English still votes mainly for Dalton McGuinty that wants Ontario to become more bilingual.

    With all that in mind, it will be hard for Ontario to vote to kick Québec out of the Canadian confederation just as Galganov would like it.


    Tym Machine

  8. A day late, a dollar short…

    As an Albertan who learned French later in life – my wife is from Quebec – your article seems reasonably accurate. My summary would be that the Quebecers I’ve met seem more open to learning English than I expected, and westerners seem pretty much unconcerned about the issue. Having said that, our children go to a French school in Calgary, and I think we have a very supportive bilingual community here.

    One part that’s missing from your analysis is that there are original French communities in all of the western provinces that started with the Oblate missions in the 18th C. (I’m speaking about Alberta, but I assume that the French settlements in other parts of western Canada began around that time). I grew up in Edmonton, but it’s only since I took more interest that I learned that there’s a stable French community in “northern” (between Edmonton and Peace River) Alberta that’s been there for 200 years, and while not particularly extensive, seems to be in no danger of disappearing.

    Another positive sign I’ve noticed is that among our English-speaking friends, most of the children are exposed to French immersion at some point in their schooling, and many of these kids speak French VERY well.

  9. @Greg Thanks for dropping by!
    Good point about French-speaking communities in the West. I’ve heard very little about them and we have a tendency, around here, to think that most French-speaking communities West of Manitoba have died down. Not to mention that most Quebeckers seem to think most «Francophones hors-Québec» are unlikely to speak any French in their daily lives. After spending more than eleven years with an Acadian, I notice this attitude more readily.

    Glad your children are in French school and that there’s a good level of exposure to the language. I’ve met a young woman from Calgary a few weeks ago and I was rather impressed by how at ease she was with listening to a conversation in French. Her older brother, who currently lives in Montreal, seems more reluctant to listen to anything in French.

    Thanks again for your comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *