Bilingualism has a fresh face

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

Canada’s changing linguistic make-up should provide an impetus to revisit bilingualism as currently defined by Ottawa. A new study, from Quebec professor François Vaillancourt and three of his Quebec colleagues recently published by the Fraser Institute implicitly raises questions about present approaches to bilingualism. (For the record, the authors take no position on whether official bilingualism is a good idea or bad policy).

On the hard numbers, the authors note bilingualism costs $2.4 billion a year, with $868 million of that spent by the provinces (and rest spent by Ottawa).

Here’s what the Vaillancourt study does not measure: For example, duel labelling requirements that increase the price of Canadian goods and services. That is likely impossible to quantify—one can’t find every expenditure on bilingualism by every private company and add it up—but that’s a real economic cost insofar as some company must comply with federal requirements even where such compliance is silly.

For example, why must a wine importer ensure both English and French alike are pasted on a bottle of Malbec from Argentina? Does anyone seriously think Quebecois wouldn’t recognize a Malbec without required French labelling? Or that any of us couldn’t understand the contents if the only label was in Spanish?

Similarly, why should a small Quebec business be forced to spend money on bilingual labels for some product it might only export to francophone communities in Manitoba and New Brunswick? If a company figured it needed bilingual labels to gain customers (or avoid losing them), they’d do it voluntarily; that regulation has always been superfluous.      

While some provinces have comparatively larger shares of official linguistic minorities (French or English), only New Brunswick has a sizable minority unable to communicate in the dominant provincial language. There, unilingual French speakers are 10 per cent of the population.

In Quebec, unilingual speakers unable to speak the majority language (French) constitute just 2.4 per cent of the population.  Everywhere else, unilingual minorities are tiny, just fractions of one per cent.

Beyond the English in Quebec and Francophones everywhere else, it’s useful to consider other “linguistic minorities” to begin an honest discussion about the future of bilingualism in Canada. British Columbia is a good place to start. Its numbers illustrate a significant trend: how other minority languages are swamping French as the top minority language.

British Columbia has the smallest percentage of people who list French as their mother tongue, at just 1.3 per cent. In B.C. (and here I depart from the study and into 2006 Statistics Canada census data), Chinese dialects account for 8.4 per cent of the population. Punjabi comes next (3.9 per cent) and German (2.1 per cent). Minority languages in B.C. that look to overtake French soon, due to immigration patterns, appear to be Tagalog and Spanish. In all, non-official languages already make up almost 27 per cent of B.C.’s population.

In Alberta, languages listed as one’s mother tongue include Chinese dialects (3.0 per cent), German (2.6 per cent) and then French (1.9 per cent).

In Ontario, just 25,000 people speak French at home in metropolitan Toronto, while almost 1.4 million people speak a non-official language (and 3.5 million speak English).

Overall, in Canada’s most populous province, French as a mother tongue (at 4.1 per cent of the population) is still second after English. However, only 6,000 people separate that second-place position from those who identified a Chinese dialect (4.0 per cent) as their mother tongue.

French is in relative decline even in Quebec, albeit marginally. In 2006, 79 per cent of Quebecers identified French as their first language compared to 82.5 per cent in 1951. 

Here’s the broad overview: People who speak more than one language have opportunities to interact with others in a manner unilingual speakers do not; they also have greater career opportunities. Bilingualism is thus desirable for personal reasons, though that doesn’t necessitate laws, regulations or even constitutional action. Of course, all of those have been at play in Canada and constitutional mandates in particular are almost impossible mechanisms with which to fiddle.

Bilingualism in Canada’s political context has always been interpreted to be “English and French.” What’s obvious is that apart from Quebec, Canada’s new bilingual makeup is about English plus some language other than French.

The growth of non-official languages raises two observations. First, the simple demographic fact of Canada’s linguistic makeup is shifting in a way that makes official bilingualism policies—and at least some of the money routinely spent—dated.

Second, unless one aims for a career in the civil service (federally and in some provinces) or in federal politics, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Spanish might be more helpful to a child’s future career.

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