COLUMN: Gunter – Time to bid official bilingualism adieu

- October 28th, 2012

We Canadians are finding our own language levels without the help of bureaucratic language monitors

by Lorne Gunter

Ottawa spends $1.5 billion a year on official bilingualism, and that’s a conservative estimate.

It includes the cost of printing laws and government forms in both French and English, and offering bilingual service at federal offices and courts. It covers the budget of the federal language nannies at the official languages office. And it includes training civil servants to speak both languages and paying them bonuses for doing so, plus ad campaigns extolling the glories of bilingualism.

But it doesn’t include the $900 million spent by the provinces or the hundreds of millions more spent by private companies to comply with federal and provincial language regulations.

Given that the Official Languages Act is now more than 40 years old, it is not much of a stretch to conclude that Canadians have spent more than $80 billion (in 2012 dollars) — maybe a lot more — on promoting and enforcing our phony linguistic duality.

It’s time this expensive experiment in social engineering was ended.

As 2011 census figures on language revealed this week, all the money and effort expended has achieved almost nothing. Whereas about 14% of Canadians claimed to be bilingual on the 1971 census, last year just 17% did. And the rise over 40 years has been almost all from francophones who learned English because they wanted to or because they felt they had to to succeed.

This is not an anti-Quebec or anti-French argument. Bilingualism is no more popular with francophone Quebecers than it is in the rest of Canada. Mostly, the only Canadians who still think official bilingualism is important are naive idealists and condescending elitists who cling to the notion that forcing an unnatural language regime on the country will somehow keep it together.

In fact, what is more likely to promote national harmony is an organic language policy — one in which individuals decide for themselves the language of their signs, schools and workplaces. Under an organic policy, Canadians would see over time just what the natural level of bilingualism is.

Much was made in media reports of the census figures of the fact that nearly one-in-five Canadians (almost six million) has a mother tongue that is neither French nor English. English was the language first learned by nearly 58% of us, French by 22% and other 21%.

But mother tongue is a less useful stat than “language most often spoke at home.” Mother tongue is the past. It is where we came from. Language spoken at home is where we are. It is the more important number for public policy.

And at home, two-thirds of Canadians speak English — eight percentage points more than learned it from childhood. Just 13% of us speak neither French nor English at home, while 21% speak French.

That means that more than a third of Canadians with an “other” mother tongue start to speak either French or English at home over time. Of those, nearly 90% choose English.

Also very telling in the mother-tongue vs. home-language comparison: While 4% of Canadians outside Quebec claim French as their mother tongue, only a little more than half of them use French at home. That’s kind of like Catholics who identify themselves as Catholics but never go to church. French might be important in those Canadians’ self-identity, but it is far less important in their reality.

Also, outside Quebec, 84% speak English at home and 14% something else.

Meanwhile, inside Quebec, 81% speak French, 11% English and 8% “other.”

We Canadians are finding our own language levels without the help of bureaucratic language monitors.

We’re doing fine on our own, so we should be pressuring our politicians to save us a few tax dollars by ending bilingualism.

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2 comments

  1. GeorgeW says:

    Lorne I like your article.
    We really need to look at again.
    40 years ago I was in high school when they brought French to us. We did not like Pierre Trudeau in the west, and we felt forced to accept “Bilingualism”, not because we needed it, but to keep Quebec from separating.
    We felt forced. Force never works, and believe it or not we all see it did not do anything, and greatly resent the fact nothing was achieved for all the money spent foolishly building several different school systems around the concept of French in the ROC and Quebec still wants to separate.
    I want to be able to partake in a vote on Quebec independence here in the west at the same time they vote of course. I would vote “YES”
    This line in your article “Mostly, the only Canadians who still think official bilingualism is important are naive idealists and condescending elitists who cling to the notion that forcing an unnatural language regime on the country will somehow keep it together.” These are the “Social Engineers” who think Canada can be everything for everyone and everybody will become one another and anger, resentment, envy, racisms, hatred will all evil will be replaced in our hearts, in THEIR HONOR, by an unnatural glow of love and we will spontaneously join hands and raise our voices to the sky to sing that annoying little song we had to sing for our centennial celebration in 1967.
    Social engineering always becomes a divisive formula; it will only become more fractious as all the different cultures descend upon us and eventually start to overtake what languages we were “founded” with.
    Bilingualism was pitched alongside multiculturalism, what nonsense that is as it sets people up to become victims, to feel like this country is not giving a fair shake for their “Culture”. It builds resentment and that becomes divisive.
    Instead promote just one Canada, one Culture, one set of rules, and yes, freely learn the two official languages if you like.

  2. George Wyndham says:

    I agree that we need to scrap official Bilingualism.

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