Monday, June 26, 2017

⚜ 🍁 Bilingualism in Canada 🍁 ⚜

Canadian flag

Photo courtesy of waferboard's Flickr page - Canadian flag:

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So, in continuing on the theme of Canada, since our neighbors to the north are about to celebrate 150 years of Confederation, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about bilingualism in Canada.

Let me start with this: a lot of Americans seem to have the wrong impression about just how bilingual Canada is. Quite a few Americans - adults old enough to have taken five minutes out of their lives and looked into the matter to find out for themselves - seem to think that Canada is predominately French speaking. I went to Canada with a friend back in 1996, specifically to the cities of MontrΓ©al and QuΓ©bec, and towards the end, he kind of suggested that Canada was not really bilingual, that it was mostly French-speaking. I told him that we had been inside of QuΓ©bec province, which is the only province that is predominately French speaking, and that all other provinces had a majority of English speakers, and he seemed surprised. In fact in his case, he seemed annoyed to learn that, feeling that Canada should be different, somehow. 

I cannot say why he got the impression that French is the dominant language there, although he is hardly alone in thinking this. In fact, quite a few Americans that I have met also seem to believe that Canada is mostly French speaking, with perhaps at best a token presence of English speakers, perhaps just to please Americans. And many Americans remain quite ignorant of Canada on many other levels, as well. I have known some Americans - again, I am talking exclusively about adults old enough to know better, who thought that Canada was the 51st state, literally. One person thought MontrΓ©al was it's own country. Some people think it is always cold there, as if the laws of physics defy Canada, and somehow, it is perennially winter north of the border. There was someone who I knew a long time ago who believed, like many others, that French was the dominant language, but when I asked him what the other language was, he hesitated, and then asked if maybe it was German.

And all of that is just about language. Ask Americans specifics about Canada (or pretty much any other country you choose), and what you will likely get in most cases is a staggering display of ignorance. Americans are known the world over as being quite a bit self-absorbed, and of not caring enough about anyone else outside of the country to know anything about them. An alarming number of adult Americans would struggle to locate many sizable countries on a world map or globe, and some might even struggle to point out their own country. So, ask them anything even remotely involved or halfway complex about other countries, and what you will likely get in many, if not most, cases, are embarrassed looks and answers that reveal the depth of their wealth of ignorance. And Canada is no exception, even though it shares the longest border in the world with the United States. 

Yes, all of this would suggest that Americans do not know much about Canada, so perhaps it is time to clarify, in case there is anyone reading this who share some of these misconceptions about our northern neighbors. Canada is predominately English speaking. If you are an American used to your predominately English-speaking country, you will feel right at home in most of Canada. From the west coast of Canada, with cities like Vancouver and Victoria, and straight through the Rockies and the Prairies and into Canada's largest city, Toronto, and to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, you will likely have no real trouble speaking only English. Now, there is a French-speaking presence in Ottawa, and it is right across the river from the province of QuΓ©bec, but about 80 percent of Ottawa is English-speaking, which is roughly true for Canada itself. It might be a little more than that, because I have heard fairly frequently of the "French Quarter" of the Canadian population, suggesting that roughly 25 percent of them speak French. However, the percentage of French-speaking Canadians has been on the decline for many years now. It would be more accurate to suggest these days that the French-speaking population is a little over 20 percent of the nation's population.

Out of those who speak French predominately, most of them live in QuΓ©bec, although by no means does that imply that all of them do. QuΓ©bec is far and away the largest province that is predominately French-speaking. In fact, it is the second largest province in terms of population and economic strength, and it is the largest in terms of size, so there is that. Plus, it has the cities  of MontrΓ©al and QuΓ©bec, which make it obviously fairly famous. No other province has a French-speaking presence anywhere near the extent that QuΓ©bec does. 

But that does not mean that there are no French speakers outside of the province. Approximately one-third of the population In New Brunswick are predominately speak French, and that province is the only other province to officially recognize French as a language. That is a statistic that seems a bit pathetic to me, seeing as thought there is a fairly sizable French speaking presence in other provinces - especially in eastern Ontario and in some rural, farming areas of Manitoba. I mean, does it not seem strange to anyone else that Ottawa, the capital of Canada and which itself has roughly 20 percent of the population that speaks French, is nonetheless inside of a province that does not officially speak French? Again, much of Eastern Ontario close to the border with QuΓ©bec province still speaks French. Granted, these are mostly rural communities, but they do exist. They are still there, and for the provincial government not to acknowledge their presence officially seems to me a bit ridiculous. 

Also, there are some fishing villages dotting the Maritime provinces that are Acadians, and Acadians speak French, of course. Now, granted, these are small communities, and they do not have the overpowering presence that big cities tend to have, so we are not talking about huge population centers that speak French. Still, again, they are nonetheless there. They do exist. 

I found one site where you can get specific information on some of these communities outside of QuΓ©bec and New Brunswick that speak French. It was some interesting stuff, and if you would like to find out more about it, here are some links (see below). The first one shows some of those Franco-Ontario towns in the east, and the second one illustrates just how many people speak French in each Canadian province. The final one is a map that reveals just how bilingual Canadian cities are.

10 Franco-Ontario Towns You Never Knew Existed Jeremy Hazan       

This Is How Many People Speak French In Every Province In Canada 


  1. It's embarrassing how little many Americans know about Canada, and indicative of a certain insularity. By and large, people aren't encouraged to be inquisitive about the world beyond their borders, which can be attributed to the fact that it simply isn't considered interesting or important. I'd actually be curious to know the percentage of American high school students who could point to countries which should be easy to find on an unlabeled map: Canada, Mexico, Russia, China, Japan, India, the UK, France, Italy, South Africa, Australia or Brazil, just to name a few. Preferably without being notified in advance, since it should theoretically be a given that they would know these things. All that is required to ace such a quiz is something vaguely resembling a clue about world geography.
    As for bilingualism, Canadians could and indeed should all be bilingual. The same goes for all countries, come to think of it, but particularly those with more than one widely spoken, official language. The sad fact of the matter is that too many people see no value in such a pursuit (at best), even seeing it as a concession to the speakers of the other language (at worst) – something to be done begrudgingly if at all. Belgium, which is obviously far smaller than Canada in terms of area, strikes me as a prime example. I don't know the percentage of Flemish people who speak French, but I've met a number of Walloons who scoff at the idea of learning Flemish. It's a mentality that I simply can't identify with.
    The Swiss of all people seem to be comparatively enlightened – although I haven't met many Swiss people, I get the distinct impression that being bilingual (or even a polyglot) is fairly common there. Maybe some day the rest of the world will follow suit...

  2. I completely agree. I know some Americans who respond with vehemence and hatred in their eyes when Spanish is mentioned. The idea that they should be bothered to learn any other language is incomprehensible to them, and fills them with hatred! "No, you're in America. This is MY country. Speak English!" Except that Spanish always has been presence in the United States. In fact, most of the West had been Spanish-speaking before it was ever English-speaking, and there always has been a large Hispanic presence out West. It seems to be spreading, and that essentially makes the United States a de facto bilingual nation, although that is not really such a bad thing. Frankly, it's an opportunity. But instead of seeing it as such, far too many Americans, particularly of the Trump supporting and Trump voting variety, instead choose to view it as a threat. Sometimes, I envy Canada for the coexistence of different cultures, and I'm not just talking about English and French Canadians. Instead of the melting pot, where many cultures melt together and call one, they consider themselves a mosaic, where immigrants all bring together something unique and special, and add diversity to an already diverse nation. Frankly, on this, and so many other issues, Canada seems to be where the United States should be. Yes, overly insular is definitely one of the major problems that the United States is guilty of right now, and it's one of the major points that is weakening the country, while those who are themselves insular believe, paradoxically, that being insular is not only giving the country strength and Making it Great Again, they actually believe it is the only thing that can preserve the country!

  3. I'm reminded of an old sketch – I don't remember if it was one of the late-night talk shows or SNL, not that it matters – spoofing the cluelessness and ignorance we're discussing here. If I recall correctly, it's a political ad featuring a haggard-looking guy looking through the jobs section in a newspaper, while the offscreen narrator representing his thoughts laments how frustrated he is by repeated job listings that require Spanish, which of course the guy doesn't speak. It's then revealed that they were listings for interpreting jobs and ambassadorships...