Canadian Bilingualism

Canada, an officially bilingual country, is a leader in the promotion of second-language knowledge. Ottawa and the provinces together spend more than $2-billion a year offering government services in both French and English.

Yet the actual ability of the population to speak both French and English remains stubbornly low. While 35 per cent of Francophones in Quebec speak English, only 7.4 per cent of anglophones outside Quebec speak French.

In the U.S., 9 per cent of the population speaks two languages – to say nothing of the European Union, where 56 per cent of citizens can hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue and nearly one-third have mastered a third language, according to a new study by the Association for Canadian Studies.

There are complex reasons for English Canada’s ambivalence toward French, among them the regional concentration of francophones, and the rising importance of Asia in the global economy, especially in Western Canada. One-third of people from British Columbia and Alberta think Spanish and Mandarin might be better choices as a second language than French.

And yet the challenges of Canadian bilingualism may also stem from its association with government legislation. Mastering both of Canada’s official languages may be wrongly perceived as an historical anomaly, or an expensive government-imposed obligation. (In fact, there is no official requirement to learn French and English, except for public servants.)

Instead, learning a second language should be viewed as a gift society which confers significant global advantages, and bridges cultural divides. “In other countries and regions such as Latin America and Europe, multilingualism is embraced by the majority, especially for young people, and seen as a way to advance,” notes Jack Jedwab, the study’s author.

Most Canadians receive second-language instruction in school, but many then lack an opportunity to use it. Through creating more opportunities – and incentives – to speak French, this trend could be reversed. Bilingual employees are already more likely to be better paid, especially in Quebec, and in the public sector.

The ability to speak French, English – as well as Spanish or Mandarin – should be seen as a source of pride and as an investment in the future that will yield dividends over a person’s lifetime. Canadians should feel blessed – not cursed – to be home to two of the world’s great languages.

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