Posted in Content

When Bilingualism Goes Political

As a Canadian, I am very aware of the political nature of bilingualism in many places. Historically, language has been used to dominate and assimilate, and to include or exclude certain groups from mainstream society. Language is not only about communication, but also about culture and thought and how we interact with others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#atop) forbids discrimination on the basis of language. Yet still, in the 21st century, language is used as a political weapon.
A few weeks ago a good friend in Canada (hi Ian!) directed my attention to an article about the Quebec language laws, and plans to restrict English further. (http://m.publishing.rogers.com/macleans/share/2012-35/08a_nat_patriquin.html). I’ve been gone from Canada for a long time, but I lived in Quebec for almost ten years, and became bilingual in Quebec, and felt a strong sense of belonging in my “francophone” life there. It saddens me greatly to see that politicians in Quebec are still restricting access to English, for reasons that are entirely political and not at all pragmatic. For people who aren’t aware of the language laws in Quebec, Bill 101 lays out what activities can happen in English in the province, and under what conditions, including in the field of education. Generally speaking, the only people who have the right to English-language schooling for their children must also have been schooled in English themselves, at the primary or secondary levels. This was done to prevent immigrants and refugees from choosing English-language schools for their children, to increase the numbers of French speakers. A worthy end-goal, but certainly a vinegar approach rather than honey. In the new legislation, they would extend these limitations to post-secondary education as well, meaning that francophone students would no longer be allowed to attend English-language colleges (CEGEPS).
I absolutely understand the desire to maintain the French language as the language of Quebec, both emotionally and functionally. However, I abhor the use of language to segregate and marginalize. When I was teaching in France, my students often mentioned that it must be hard to teach such low-level learners, after teaching in Quebec, where everyone surely spoke English very well. Unfortunately, not true. Years of politicking about language and restricting language learning and use has led to a great divide in Quebec, as one of the only places in the world that I can think of where people actively refuse the use of a second language.
Far from learning from our past, when linguistic minority groups were routinely discriminated against and eliminated, language discrimination seems to be once again on the rise. From the Quebec situation to activist groups in the US pushing for “English-only” legislation, we seem to be celebrating bilingualism on an individual level, but still can’t deal with it on a societal level in many places. Europe has a “language rich Europe” program, but speakers of minority or immigrant languages are still routinely discriminated against. School children are still being forbidden the use of their home language at school, and being forced to use only a language that they do not master. And politicians are still using the emotional power that language stirs up to promote their own nationalist, discriminatory agendas.
There is not really one thing we can do to change this, except to keep advocating, not only for our own families, but for everyone’s families, the benefits of bilingualism and the understanding that comes with using the language of another.
In the next weeks I am going to spend some time looking for online resources to help share the message of positive bilingualism, please share your resources as well.

/end political diatribe…

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