This article from a few days ago previews the upcoming (Oct 24) release of census data describing Canadian’s linguistic abilities. It deals in particular with the relationship between the data that is reported and our national identity:
“It’s a portrait of who we are, linguistically, as a nation,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies. “There’s a lot of symbolic dimension to this. It’s not just about the numbers.”
Which is true, with a caveat. The symbolic dimension doesn’t just emerge from the numbers – it emerges from what we make of them, in our everyday conversations and in the media. And one thing that I continue to find striking about the discourse about language and bilingualism in Canada is the tendency to conflate the concept of a “bilingual country” with rates of individual bilingualism. Here in Canada, they are being constructed as the same thing – the relatively low rates of English-French bilinguals in the country, especially among English speakers, is referenced as a sign of the declining importance of English-French bilingualism for our national identity.
Although most Canadians perceive the country as bilingual – the result of government policies mandating services and labels in both official languages – the legitimacy of that image is under growing scrutiny.
My shallow analytical counterpoint would be that regardless of how many English-French bilinguals exist in this country, the country remains bilingual by virtue of those very government policies. But this scrutiny exists no matter what I think, and these contributions are, I think, going to change the conversation about our official language policy, and may bring it up for questioning in ways it hasn’t been for quite some time. Maybe they’re one off points, but with a separatist government in Quebec and an unsympathetic Conservative administration in Ottawa, the linguistic gloves might come off.
One thing I would like to see is how our political vs personal bilingualism discourse compares to what happens in other countries with multiple official languages. I’m fairly confident, for example, that South Africans don’t spend a great deal of time worrying about the fact that very few individuals speak all of the 11 official languages of that country. I’m also curious about how Canadians conceptualize the role of English overseas and things like the high rates of fluent L2 English speakers in countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, in contexts where it is not a part of national identity. I wonder whether thinking and talking about that makes a difference to the assumption that our identity as a bilingual nation must or should map on to a greater number of individuals manifesting that particular form of bilingualism.