Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Introduction + A Short Comment on Bilingualism in Canada

In a country as multicultural as Canada, conflict and tension amongst peoples is sure to ensue. We often hear of grandiose stories that borderline terrorism from specific populations that have links to their home country. Often times, these allegiances are extensions of religious interpretations but it may be conflicting ethnic differences or a number of any other reasons.

Less often discussed are the tensions between the English- and French-speaking populations in this country. As of 2001, when the last available data was produced, there were about 30 million people in Canada, and 5.2 million – or 18% of the population – spoke both languages.

Paola and I have two very different stories. Her first language is Tagalog, mine is English. She is from the suburbs of Montréal, and I, from the suburbs of Toronto. Although we both speak English fluently, we also both speak French fluently and our conversations often switch seamlessly between the two languages. That’s not to say that we’re the perfect example of Canadian bilingualism but through our language connection, we have been able to share more than just words.

Without the ability to speak, our ability to communicate as human beings would be severely hindered and we wouldn’t be much more than upright animals who perform a series of grunts, moans, facial expressions and finger pointing to get what we desire.
Evidently, language is important, but why doesn’t everyone just learn the same language? Because a language is much more than words; Along with a language comes history, and with a history come culture and a way of life.

This history – mainly the British expelling the French rulers and attempting to assimilate the French population – still lives within the bones of most young Quebecers today, even though la Conquête took place 250 years ago.
This past July 1st, we took a bunch of students to what was their first Canada Day fireworks celebration. To me, Quebec is just as much as a part of Canada as Ontario is so it was bizarre that they had never celebrated their country’s birthday before. For them, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day is their birthday.

One student asked me if Ontario has a holiday like the Saint-Jean and I told her we didn’t (I guess technically we do, but very few of us actually know what Simcoe Day is, besides a day off work). She seemed disappointed that we didn’t celebrate our provincial pride but to me it wasn’t a big deal. We celebrate Victoria Day – a holiday which no one from Quebec knew about, and to my surprise, our students from British Columbia from the Spring session were also unaware of – and Canada Day within 6 weeks of each other.

It’s about perspective I guess. If I were to erect a flagpole in front of my house, the red-and-white maple leaf would wave proudly in the wind, but I would be hard-pressed to find a Quebecer who would do the same. Theirs would be a blue-and-white fleur-de-lis and no one would question it.

So what does that say about the division of our country? Why is bilingualism important if people – both Francophones and Anglophones – seem unwilling and unmotivated to learn a second language?

If you’re one of those who are asking this, you’ve clearly never been to a Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day gathering or listen to the roars of the Bell Centre during a Montréal Canadiens game.

But in all seriousness, the trends are changing. As I mentioned earlier, 5.2 million Canadians were bilingual in 2001, whereas five years earlier, that number was 4.8 million. Extrapolating the data we can guess that in the 10 years since the last data was available, the number of bilingual Canadians is probably in between 5.5-6 million, which would represent just fewer than 20% of the 33 million people in Canada.

While it is true that more Francophones are bilingual than Anglophones (43% of Francohpones are bilingual while 9% of Anglophones are bilingual), the importance of bilingualism is demonstrated clearly as new students wishing to join French Immersion programs in public schools across the GTA are regularly put on waiting lists. And for the record, about 55% of Anglophone parents believe it is important for their children to learn French (that number jumps to 97% concerning Francophone parents).

The Explore program is just the place for these desires to call home. Evidently, students come here for the opportunity to learn a new language but often there is also a little urging from their parents. When they leave, they have acquired new language skills, have gained knowledge of the other language’s people and culture and are doing their part to uphold Canada commitment to bilingualism.

Words by Jonathan Kates; photos by Paola Paulino
All data provided by the Census of Canada, 2001 and/or Environics, 2003.

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