ARCHIVED - Montreal, June 6, 2001

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The Importance of Languages in the New Economy Convocation Address

Centre for Continuing Education

Dr. Dyane Adam – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Dear Principal and Vice-Chancellor,
Dear Dean,
Dear Colleagues,
Dear Friends, Guests and Parents,

Dear Graduates,

It is an honour to be here today to mark this important moment that represents the culmination of several years of hard work and sacrifice for you, but it also the beginning of new challenges that will lead you through a dramatically changing labour market.

The new economy and the globalization of markets leaves very little unchanged around us. Whether in terms of technology, the economy or socially, we constantly face realities and rules that will certainly be different than those of tomorrow.

Since the creation of wealth will henceforth involve the development and use of knowledge, our human capital has clearly become the key to our prosperity. And it is undoubtedly the principal factor in the economic revival of Montreal, making this city a hub of the new economy.

Why has Montreal's human capital made such a difference? There are in my opinion two decisive factors that concern you directly.

First of all, there is the caliber of university research and teaching at four first rate institutions, which are highly esteemed by both linguistic groups for their excellence and among which McGill has been a cornerstone for many years.

In addition to the advantages of a highly qualified labour force, Montreal also benefits from the cultural diversity of a population that works, studies and lives in an environment featuring a unique synergy between two major international languages, English and French.

Montreal is of course the second most important French city in the world. The unique context of French in North America also means that special attention must be devoted to its protection and promotion in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. This crucial fact is however in no way incompatible with the equally unique realities of Montreal's openness to the world, its role as an economic engine and the importance of the English-speaking community in its development.

This unique context means instead that Montreal is a centre of cultural vitality, at the cutting edge, that draws inspiration from the meeting of America and Europe. This is another facet of the city's special character, giving its residents a unique ease in our continent. It also represents a major asset economically in the context of the new economy and the globalization of markets.

Several sociologists and economists have considered the economic benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism to individuals and to society as a whole. This is a relatively new field of study and the research findings are still preliminary, but one recurring observation is that the acquisition of language skills and abilities has a decisive and positive effect on a person's financial prospects and on society in general.

Not only does it indicate a worker's superior abilities and greater adaptability, knowledge of another language helps increase an individual's opportunities to play a larger role in society. From this point of view, an individual's participation in society can increase considerably as a result of language skills. As the author Julien Green noted, the more languages we know, the more human we become.

I would imagine that many of you are already fluent in English and French. Montreal is after all the city with the greatest number of bilingual workers and students in Canada, more than 50% in fact. Montreal also has the highest concentration of people in America who speak at least three languages. Nearly half (47%) of allophones in Quebec indicate that they are trilingual, as reported in Statistics Canada data in 1996, as compared to 5% of allophones in all other provinces. The rate of trilingualism in Quebec is therefore nine times higher than elsewhere in the country. And so one cannot be surprised by one of the most evident signs of these statistics, namely, that Montreal has become the leader in language industries in North America.

Speaking at the Estates General on the Future of the French Language last January, Patricia Lamarre, Education Professor at the Université de Montréal, noted in this regard that "multilingualism is as valuable a resource in the context of globalization as it is rare in North America. We must recognize (this resource) and make the necessary efforts to develop it". (La Presse, January 27, 2001, p. A6)

This is all the more important, I would add, as the future free trade area of the Americas is now beginning to emerge on the horizon, a change that will bring millions of speakers of Spanish and Portuguese into our continental market. With its four major official languages, there is no doubt that our language industries will have to expand tremendously in the coming years. In more general terms, however, the expansion of our trade with the Americas will diminish the current influence of English and give a competitive advantage to those who are sensitive to linguistic and cultural diversity. Montreal and Canada are already well positioned in this regard.

The value of our linguistic duality is therefore much more than merely symbolic or a question of identity. Taking a step back, one can reflect that Trudeau and Pearson, the fathers of official bilingualism, were ahead of their times. Thirty years after it was passed, the Official Languages Act and the resulting culture of respect for linguistic minorities has become a legacy whose value is constantly increasing, especially in this era of globalization and the new economy.

Feeling the full impact of this new force and the intensification of international competition, we have just barely begun to recognize what an asset our linguistic duality can be for the expansion of trade and the strengthening of our collective well-being. It gives Canada a broader vision of the world and a unique approach that has become our trademark in an ever more competitive environment.

Thank you. Best of luck to all the graduates here today.