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.