Sunday, September 20, 2009

Being Bilingual in Canada

I’ll try to answer a question Cinnamon Girl asked me (following this post):
What do Canadians think about living in a bilingual country, and is there any difference between the French-speaking and the English speaking views?

I can only speak for myself. Being a French-Canadian, born and raised in a French speaking home, with parents who did not speak a word of English, I can say it meant something. What? I’m not quite sure. Thinking about this made me realise it is a big source of conflict (personally) since some part of me feel strong about certain issues and they are conflicting with other beliefs… no wonder so many people fight over this.

I think it’s great that Canada is bilingual. On ten provinces and three territories only one is actually French, and it’s Québec. There are French-speaking concentrations in other provinces like in New Brunswick or Manitoba but Québec is the largest. Does that justify having French as a second official language, I don’t know. In being a bilingual country it sure brings expectation, like when a Québécois goes somewhere he/she expect to be spoke to in French (within Canada), and it makes sense. I especially agree with this in regards to government offices, services, etc. To hear our Prime Minister’s broken French or English (depending which clown is up there) saddens, actually it embarrasses me. How can he/she represent the people right? In all honesty I think he/she should speak well, and in the best of world he/she would be bilingual. Do both languages honor.

Because my parents came from the North of the province, there wasn’t any (or very rarely) English being spoken there. They didn’t need to learn or speak it in their daily lives. I was born there but really grew up in Montreal, which is a big cultural city. You see and hear everything here. While walking downtown, you can hear Arabic, Spanish, French, Chinese, English, Hindu, name it, it’s here. For a lot of Québécois, it means a lot to be able to speak French and to get services in French. I do care but not to the point of wanting to separate from Canada to make sure we preserve our language. When I hear some people talk (like I’ve mentioned on this post) I can’t believe that some of us are actually fighting to preserve “that”. I have some friends who are separatists and the way they speak (French) is really bad.

At home we speak English, mostly, no real reason, we just do. Hubby is among the lucky ones who speak more than one languages, he speaks three: Hungarian, English and French. When he speaks in English you can’t tell he speaks French and vice versa. It’s beautiful. I’m not so gifted. I tend to switch from one to the other without even thinking about it. Recently while shopping with my mother we walked in a show store where I ask a sales person, in French, if he had a specific shoe. He went in the back store. During that time Hubby came in, talked to me in English and continued on. When the clerk came back, I asked him something else but this time in English. He got all offended and started lecturing me. I told him to relax and to simply answer my question; in either French or English I didn’t care. Attitude like that pisses me off. As far as I’m concern, especially is sales, one should adapt. But then again, I understand the French speaking wanting to speak French (there’s one of my dilemmas). I’ve caught myself saying “You’re in Québec you should speak French” and I believe that. If you made a choice to come here (I’m talking about emigrants) knowing French was the main language then you should try and learn it. I’ve told this to my father in-law the few times he complained about some Québécois clients of his. I truly believe one should adapt to where he/she lives.

If you speak with some Québécois, French, in Québec, should be the only language spoken, and on display. There are so many rules and laws about signage here. We even have some “language nazis” (as Hubby calls them), who give fines to stores for not having their signs in French. Some areas are totally beyond this, and show no respect for that at all. I don't agree with excess, if there's French and English, I'm ok. If there's French and English full of mistakes, it bothers me (which ever language it is). I wrote a post about that back in 2006. Read it here.

When it comes to signage (menus, publicity, etc) there should be no mistake. But if I’m walking around Chinatown I expect to see some Chinese, but that’s me, and I’m weird. When I went to Vancouver I wasn’t shocked to see there were signs in English and some Asian (can’t remember if it was Chinese or Japanese). I didn’t freak out, even if French, our second official language, wasn’t being displayed. Maybe it should have been because it is “official” but then again, they adapted to their “clientele”. That makes sense to me.

My dad always told me, and this despite him not speaking it, that I could go anywhere with English and a will to communicate. He was sure right about that.

Cinn., I’m not sure if this answered your question... I'm doubting it. :-/


cinnamon girl said...

Good enough for me, thanks! I find it really interesting. It's difficult for me to imagine a bilingual country. There's all sorts of factors I never thought of. I guess from here it seems like Quebec is almost a different country to the rest of Canada. And though I figured many Quebecois would understand English, I didn't even think about you going into other Canadian provinces and expecting them to speak French.... although logically they should. A few months ago I met a Canadian and was surprised that she spoke fluent French even though she wasn't from Quebec.... funny.

We actually have the mixed English/Japanese signs in a few of the more touristy places. Some people get really freaked out about it (a hangover from the war I think), but I don't have a problem. I guess I have a lot of sympathy for people who don't speak the language.

I've also seen street signs here in English/Gaelic, probably because of the local Irish pub.

lizgwiz said...

It is hard for Americans to imagine a bilingual country. We're so spoiled--no matter where you go, SOMEONE will speak English. It's enabled us to become very lazy about learning other languages, which is very sad. It's also given rise to the whole "English only" movement, which is even sadder, to me.

Barb said...

I have to admit that I was jarred when the nearby Target opened and signs were both in English and Spanish. That wouldn't bother me so much, but like in Canada, there are people here who speak many different languages and if signage is going to be displayed in more than just English, they should take into account the other ethnic communities in the area. For example, in a nearby neighborhood there are people who speak English, Spanish, Korean, and Arabic. Signage in a parking lot there include all of those languages. But signage at the Target excludes peoples of other cultures.

Anyway...I've read Martin Brodeur mention that he expects to be spoken to in French when coming across another French-Canadian NHL player whether in Canada or not. I understand your viewpoint of wanting to be spoken to in French when you're in Canada, but what do you think of his point of view?

Charlie said...

"If you made a choice to come here (I’m talking about emigrants) knowing French was the main language then you should try and learn it."

That is how I feel about the Spanish speakers who move here to the U.S. By choosing not to learn English, they also choose not to become a part of our melting pot heritage, so they make it difficult both for themselves and for us.

And Barb is right. As long as the marketers print signs and billboards in Spanish, there's no impetus for them to learn English.

If I were to emigrate to a non-English speaking country, I think it would be rude not to learn the language—at least the ability to speak it and read it.

Meg said...

That's kind of cool that you can just switch back and forth between the two and be understood.

Barb said...

I agree with both you and Charlie about learning the language of the country to which you immigrate.

cinnamon girl said...

Actually I don't really understand the whole 'you should choose to learn the language of the country you choose to emigrate to' thing.

Mainly because I don't think I have ever in my life met an migrant who doesn't want to learn English- and I've met an awful lot of migrants. Life in a country where you don't speak the language is freaking hard. My grandmother had problems right to the end of her life because she was not literate or fluent in speaking English. But her problems were not because she didn't want to learn - they were natural problems faced by any one who tries to learn a language later in life, particularly one from a completely different language family. My experience and that of most people I know is of helping the old people negotiate a country they can't understand properly; their children can speak English, and it only takes two to three generations for the mother tongue to die out completely.

As for the signs in English and Spanish that Barb mentioned, I never had a problem with stuff like that. Demographically the USA is a quarter Spanish, so I think it makes sense to put the signs in both languages. Coming from a very small ethnic community, I never expected to see anything translated into my family's language, because there aren't that many of us in this country. I'm not bothered seeing pamphlets and stuff translated into a dozen languages and leaving ours out. Them's the breaks.

If it was about speaking the native language, we'd all be learning the Indigenous languages. But it's about the pressure of numbers - English is most common so it takes priority, Spanish is really common so it comes next etc. Hungarian, Croatian, Tibetan and Somalian miss out. Mandarin and Arabic often get a look-in over here.

Barb said...

@cinnamon girl, unlike Canada, we don't have 2 official languages no matter what our demographic population is. The signage wouldn't be a problem for me if, in enclaves where several different cultures reside, signage is in the different languages of those peoples, as my example of the parking lot sign in a nearby neighborhood. Hospitals here offer translators for at least 12 different languages, so signage and perhaps billboards, should either be printed in only English or in the language(s) spoken in specific neighborhoods. Maybe this is a good reason for me to visit Chinatown to check out their signage. :-)

I also see your point about older immigrants possibly having trouble learning a new language. However, this doesn't mean that 2nd- and 3rd-generation family members are willing to learn English, especially, as Charlie mentioned, many signs and billboards are now in Spanish.

greenduckiesgirl said...

All I have to say is that when I went to Portugal, I took a phrase book and was prepared to try and stumble through as much as possible. People were fantastic and helpful and never once looked down at me for using broken Portuguese. I look at it the same way here. Yes, it would be lovely if everyone spoke English but they don't. People need to deal with it and move on. I have no problem with signs being in English and Spanish. My sister and brother-in-law are making sure my nephew continues to learn Spanish because they want him to be bilingual. Anyone that speaks more than one language fascinates me so I have a lot of respect for them, especially if English is not their first language.

kara said...

i only talk to canadians that speak inuit. yes it is TOO a language!

cinnamon girl said...

Barb, you're right, unlike Canada the Us doesn't have two official languages. In fact, it doesn't have ANY official languages. So I guess that means people in the US can print their signs in any language they want to, unlike Canada where they are mandated to use both English and French.

I wasn't intending to imply absolute causality between older immigrants have trouble, and their children or grandchildren wanting to learn English. There are lots of other factors that make me believe they want to learn. Not just the experience of every one I've ever met, but also the social science data I've seen. Generally it's isolation or lack of resources which inhibit learning, not a lack of willingness.

Interestingly, I did turn up a couple of articles about large German, Irish and French speaking communities in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, which were multi-generational and close-knit communities who didn't need to learn English. There were also a couple of studies showing that immigrants nowadays are learning English much faster due to economic incentives and increased mobility compared to those that came before, even moving from the three-generational loss model to a two-generational one.

Oh and I do all my grocery shopping in Chinatown! I was there today in fact. I noticed the shop where I buy sweet red bean cake has its signs in three languages.

Mmmmm, sweet red bean cake.

Barb said...

@cinnamon girl, am I arguing with a grad student? lol

I'm not arguing for *stomp* English only, as much as I am for acknowledgment of greater diversity in the U.S. besides English and Spanish. It's sort of like -- and this is a hot topic that I really don't want to touch -- when people talk about race as if there's only black people and white people. As a Filipino-American immigrant, my experience fits into neither. Though I wasn't educated in the Philippines, I believe schooling there is in English so I grew up in the U.S. speaking English in public and my native language at home.

I did try red bean ice cream for the first time recently and it was quite good. :-)

cinnamon girl said...

Lol Barb, not quite a grad student yet, but yes, tertiary education in sociology and anthropology means I have done too many hours of research on these topics.

Actually, I'd agree with you about how 'race' conversations in the USA are generally about the black and white binary; I've been reading a lot of blogs on the topic and that's something I'd really noticed (and it's not just black/white, but black/WASP... go figure). From over here, I was really surprised to actually read the demographic figures for the USA... I would have thought it was half black and half white with a few Hispanics thrown in from the conversations I hear.

I guess I figure that translations generally happen in line with demographics in countries that don't have an official language. Logistically it would be impractical to translate everything for the speakers of every language in a given area, but to me it makes sense to translate for a quarter of the general population; smaller groups who congregate (like in Chinatown) generally deal with their own translations in areas where they most need them.

To me, saying it's not fair to translate for Spanish speakers unless you translate for everyone is akin to saying don't plant a tree or re-vegetate the river bank unless you can re-vegetate the entire continent.

I think it's better to do a bit than nothing, as every little bit helps.