Canada: the official bilingual country with a near-monolingual population

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Canada is a bilingual country with English and French being its two officially spoken languages.

 Yet, according to the official Canada website, as of 2016, only 17.9 per cent of the entire Canadian population spoke both English and French as of 2016. If one looks at the percentage of the population that speak either English or French, there is obviously a vast majority. English speakers make up around three-quarters of the population, while French speakers make up a quarter. For such a massive country, I feel the number of speakers fluent in both is not very impressive. 

The majority of bilingual speakers are not surprisingly from Quebec, where French is the official language. A significant portion also includes immigrants who have obtained their citizenship or permanent residence and have come to settle in Canada. This further decreases the number of Canadian-born individuals who have grown up learning both French and English.

The 1967 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism report clarified, “A bilingual country is not one where all the inhabitants necessarily have to speak two languages; rather it is a country where the principal public and private institutions must provide services in two languages to the citizens, the vast majority of whom may well be unilingual.” 

I feel this is why French has not been imposed on Canadians and this is why the Canadian population being nearly monolingual has not been such an issue for the government.

However, there is absolutely no harm in being fluent in an additional language. In many countries including Mauritius, where I’m from, the large majority of the population is not just bilingual but multilingual. We have our mother tongue, Mauritian Creole. On top of that, we are taught both English and French at school, as well as an additional language of our choice once we reach high school. I am certain that many other countries have similar systems. Therefore, why should Canadians be drawing the short end of the stick when they are just as capable of being multilingual? I believe no language barrier should exist for people raising the same flag and singing the same national anthem.

Although many might think this is a hard task, incorporating both languages in the daily lives of the Canadian population is easy. The education system has been trying to ensure all children grow up with fluency in both languages through mandatory French lessons starting in Grade 4 all the way up to and including Grade 9, only becoming optional in Grades 10 to 12. But ask any Ontario resident born in the early 2000s and many of them will tell you they were able to meet the requirements of the educational system without developing a strong understanding of the language, which is exactly the problem. Learning French has become a “done and dusted” task to tick off the checklist and move forward.

Why make it optional instead of mandatory, and why start at Grade 4 instead of earlier on? I understand that making French optional from a certain age allows children the freedom to choose whether they wish to pursue this language further or not. However, if a student has not been able to develop a basic foundation of the language throughout the years they have been forced to learn the language, then they will definitely find it difficult, tiresome and a waste of time to continue.

Despite the fact that Canada offers all its services in both English and French, the latter will never be as prevalent as English throughout Canada until it is treated as a staple instead of an option. Once French becomes ingrained in the lives of Canadians, as is the case with English, it will be given the same importance as English. Perhaps only then Canada will see a rise in bilingualism and even multilingualism.

 

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