Archived - Notes for a Pre-Recorded Address at the Empowering Language Professionals Conference: Plurilingualism in a Globalized 21st Century
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Ottawa / Graz, Austria, September 30, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Ladies and gentlemen,
To begin with, let me say how sorry I am that I could not be with you. Unfortunately, circumstances here in Ottawa required me to be here, and I am obliged to resort to this technological method of participating in your conference. I hope that I can, nevertheless, contribute to your reflections.
Canada’s experience with language has shaped the country in many ways. Language is a defining characteristic for Canada, just like class is for Britain and race is for the United States. It has been a source of conflict, compromise and creativity.
Canada is often described as a bilingual country. This is misleading shorthand for the fact that Canada has a policy of official bilingualism, which is quite different.
Let me explain. There are some 200 languages spoken in Canada, including 50 Aboriginal languages. But 98% of the 33 million Canadians speak at least one of Canada’s two official languages, English and French. Of those 33 million Canadians, only five million are bilingual in English and French. There are 24 million who speak only English, and four million who speak only French.
We are, in effect, two language communities, both of which are predominantly unilingual, living side by side.
These two language communities, however, have substantial minority-language communities: there are almost a million French-speaking Canadians living outside Quebec, Canada’s only majority French-speaking province, and almost a million English-speaking Canadians living in Quebec.
Official bilingualism means the federal government should be bilingual, so citizens don’t have to be. It is a paradox: there are often more bilingual citizens in countries that are not officially bilingual, because everyone has to learn the language of the majority to deal with the state.
The Official Languages Act, established in 1969, created the position I hold. I am the sixth Commissioner of Official Languages. I have the responsibility of reporting to Parliament on the degree to which federal institutions are living up to their obligations—a dual role of protection and promotion.
What can Europe learn from the Canadian experience? In several respects, you are ahead of us. And what can Canada learn from Europe? Let me give you a few examples.
Canada extensively studied European examples before adopting its own language policy. During the 1960s, a commission on bilingualism and biculturalism studied the individualist approach of South Africa—where citizens could use both of the official languages at the time, English and Afrikaans, throughout the country. The commission also studied the territorial approach of Switzerland and Belgium. Finally, it looked at the Finnish compromise—unilingual and bilingual regions providing central services in both languages.
A bit like Goldilocks choosing among the three bowls of porridge, Canada was inspired by the Finnish compromise. The country is too large for a single, individualist approach, but minority-language communities are too significant to permit a purely territorial approach.
Canada is complex. Language questions are rights-based—enshrined in a charter of rights, defendable before the courts—and also values-based. The Official Languages Act applies to the federal government and federal institutions, but not to provincial institutions. Quebec is officially unilingual, with French as its official language. New Brunswick is officially bilingual. Ontario has a French-language services act, which requires certain provincial services to be provided in French in designated areas. Nunavut, one of the northern territories, has three official languages: English, French and Inuktitut.
Canada also has two legal systems: common law, and, in Quebec, the Civil Code. But the Civil Code has never been officially translated into English. Just to make things really complicated, jurisdiction is divided between the federal and provincial governments, and the provinces have jurisdiction over health and education.
So no one should talk loosely about adopting the Canadian model. As a Canadian political scientist once observed, it doesn’t work in theory, but it works in practice.
Several elements of the Canadian experience have been borrowed and improved upon by European countries. I am thinking, for example, of our innovations in the field of immersion—and exchange programs. As you know, instruction in a language other than the students’ mother tongue was tested and studied by Professor Wallace Lambert in the 1960s. This experiment was repeated in many other places—with great success.
The federal government has made several language tools available to public servants, and the general public, through the Language Portal of Canada.Footnote 1 This website provides extensive information about Canada’s languages and the language professions, as well as a large number of resources from across the country. It also contains several writing tools in both English and French, including TERMIUM Plus®, the Government of Canada’s linguistic data bank. TERMIUM Plus® now contains over four million terms in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
But, with the diligence that is part of the European intellectual tradition, you have leapt ahead of us by creating the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This is an extremely important tool for managing language learning.
The same pattern can be observed with student exchanges. Canada may have felt it was innovating in 1936 with the creation of a student exchange organization, but the Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada, originally known as Visites Interprovinciales, has been vastly eclipsed by the Erasmus program.
In both cases, I am hoping that we can learn from what you may have learned from us.
Bilingualism is a skill that can build bridges between languages and cultures. This is why I believe linguistic duality and cultural diversity are complementary and not opposites, as some incorrectly believe.
That is to say, in Canada, there are two majority languages. But officially, there are not two majority cultures. Linguistic duality is a fundamental value of Canada, serving as a bridge between the cultures. It is, in my view, the starting point of Canadian multiculturalism.
Canadian society is always seeking a balance between cultural respect and social cohesion. After meeting Canadians of different backgrounds from all across the country, I can say that numerous minority groups are very open to learning the two official languages. Immigrant families choose to encourage their children to master several languages and make multilingualism a priority due to national and international market forces.
This, I must say, is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Immigrants to other countries often choose to learn the minority language as a tool for integration. A Council of Europe executive told me that one of his sons signed up for a class in Dublin to learn Irish, and found that all of his fellow classmates were immigrants to Ireland.
We are seeing that language mastery is becoming more and more a leadership competency. If we understand this, what does that mean for language teachers? It means they need to teach more than points of grammar and style. It means they should be prepared to use their language mastery and their teaching skills to instruct their students in some of the key concepts of management: communications, leadership coaching, negotiations, financial administration and human resources management.
I can personally attest to the importance of this kind of training. When I started this job, I had not taken a French class for 30 years. My chief of staff suggested that I hire one of the Office of the Commissioner’s retired assistant commissioners to update my French skills. In our sessions, I received thorough training—not in the French language, but on the Official Languages Act. Clause by clause, in French.
If language is the essential vehicle of culture in a broad sense, language professionals must transmit the cultural values of those who speak the language in question.
Faced with the reality of globalization and the challenge of diversity, I believe that teachers will have an increasingly important role to play: as instructors, of course, but also as cultural interpreters in a constantly changing environment.
As citizens who must adapt to the new demands defining our world today, we’re up against a major challenge. We’ve heard in recent decades how the world is getting smaller and borders are disappearing, all in the name of globalization. How can people succeed in our constantly changing world? There is no question in my mind that new technologies in the areas of networking and personal computing have changed how we communicate. Citizens of developed countries have been communicating in real time without being geographically linked for a while now, and the wonder of this has quickly become “business as usual” in our daily lives. As a consequence, the dialogue among people with common interests has vastly increased. Geographical borders may be less and less relevant in global dialogue, but language still is.
And let’s not forget that technology has yet to reach many developing countries. This will surely become one of the world’s most important challenges in our time.
Now, the world of Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are all part of a globalized universe. Conversations take place in real time, around the world. And those of us who are concerned with the growth and development of language communities need to grasp the transformative importance of these new technologies. These are tools that language professionals cannot ignore. As an example, the Google Translate application is becoming more and more accurate, to and from many languages, and, even though we will always need human input, it is impossible to ignore how quickly the shape of human communications is shifting.
The Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan was prescient, 40 to 50 years ago, when he reflected on communications and technology. Just as printing changed how humans communicate, technology is transforming human relationships. It is possible to imagine that, some day, the language one speaks will be neither obstacle nor advantage to world communication, because technology will allow everyone to interpret written text or spoken language in his or her language of choice.
But that is still a long way off.
Until then, it is important that conversations, whether national or international, take place between human beings who have learned to understand each other. In this period of social, religious and cultural uncertainty, contact and change, language professionals are called upon to play a critical role, as teachers, interpreters and guides. You have a whole world to present to generations of today—and tomorrow.
I salute you, and I wish you luck.