03/20/2014 12:55 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Bilingualism Is a Threat to Canadian Democracy

Canada is a nation of people too eager to keep quiet. We brood about things that annoy and enrage us rather than admit them openly, we chat around the dinner table about worries we don't have the courage to bring up in public. We politely claim to not be bothered by things that really annoy us and we give our politicians a pass on ignoring issues we desperately want addressed.

It all adds up to a culture that too often appears to offer settled consensus on debates that aren't remotely settled at all.

Bilingualism is one of them.

In the aftermath of the publication of my most recent editorial -- "Let Them Learn French": Canada's Bilingual Elite Hold All the Power" -- I've been widely denounced by all manner of pundit, much of Quebec, and even our old pal Gilles Duceppe. Bigoted, ignorant, and insensitive seem to be the adjectives of choice for my central argument  -- that there's something fundamentally discriminatory and anti-democratic about reserving all of the best government jobs for the 17% of the Canadian population who happen to be fluent in French and English.

On the other hand, I've also heard from numerous Canadians applauding me for finally confronting one of this country's most sacred taboos head-on. Many were frustrated Anglos working for the federal government in Ottawa or elsewhere, folks who have grown painfully cynical about the state of the Canadian public sector after repeatedly witnessing untalented co-workers receive promotions simply for possessing arbitrary skills in a second language utterly irrelevant to competence in the job itself.

"I've been 'screened out' from jobs I'm overqualified for and don't even bother applying to many postings because they require French," said one reader. "Canada is segregating away its best human capital on a non-meritocratic basis," said another.

Others told stories of entering the federal service with honest intentions of "becoming bilingual" only to find the process far more onerous than expected. They spoke with the dejected apathy that comes with trying your best and stillfailing.

I don't regret a word I wrote in Monday's column. The negative response it's generated from Quebeckers in particular has merely highlighted the fact that Canada is still very much a nation of "two solitudes," with French Canada possessing a very particular  --  sheltered, frankly  -- understanding of language born from the uniqueness of Quebec society, with sweeping generalizations from this unrepresentative experience used to justify imposing preposterous bilingual standards on the rest of the country.

By far, the most common refrain from my Quebec critics was, ironically, the very sentiment I decried in the article's headline: "Let them Learn French!" In other words, to even complain about the "burden" of bilingualism is to declare oneself lazy and stupid, and to compare Canada's bilingual population, as I did, to some privileged caste in a third world oligarchy, is appallingly small-minded. Anyone can learn French, they declared; just open a textbook and get cracking!

It's a wonderful sentiment in theory, it just happens to contradict everything we know about linguistic science.

The excellent linguistics blogger Mark Rosenfelder posted a tremendously useful essay some time ago summarizing much of the modern scientific consensus regarding how languages are learned  -- or not learned. In short, he concluded, learning a new language takes "immense effort," meaning "people will only learn them if it's socially or economically inescapable."

This is why children seem to learn languages so easily  --  not because their brains are somehow more pliable, but simply because they exist in a state in which the need to learn a language quickly and comprehensively is most pressing. The same principle explains why children of bilingual immigrants often reply in English when mom asks a question in her native tongue, or why you'll find the heaviest accents among residents of an inner-city ethnic ghetto. People generally only become fluent in languages it makes sense for them to learn in the circumstances in which they live, with this "need," as Rosenfelder puts it, "interpreted from the learner's perspective, not the observer's."

This question of "need" is what demolishes the arguments of Mr. Duceppe and other sour Quebeckers who complain that since they, as French Canadians, learned English, it's only fair for Anglos to learn French, too. Fairness might be a nice principle, but when it comes to language, it won't get you far. A fiery separatist like Duceppe, after all, surely wasn't motivated to learn the language of his oppressors simply out of some sympathetic sense of social justice.

Quebeckers learn English for the same reason Swedes or Luxembourgers learn some other language: when you float as a tiny linguistic outpost in a vast sea of something else  --  in Quebec's case, a province of eight million French speakers surrounded on all sides by a massive continent of over 300 million Anglos  --  it makes all the sense in the world to adapt.

Quebeckers need to learn English because it's a practical skill for effective communication and commerce, not just with their province's sizeable English-speaking minority, not just with the citizens of neighbouring states and provinces, but with a wider world in which English has emerged the lingua franca of business, diplomacy, and technology.

A Calgarian who lives two thousand miles from the closest French neighbourhood experiences no comparable pressure. He can crack a book, listen to tapes, or even take expensive night courses, but everything we know about language suggests that without a constant need to speak French in day-to-day life, he'll probably never become fluent in any genuine way. Certainly not to the standard Ottawa wants.

This is why federal bilingualism requirements for the country's top bureaucratic or political jobs (or even, as many readers reminded me, an increasing lot of mid-level or entry-level jobs  -- "40% of positions in the federal public service," by the government's own estimate) are, in fact, fundamentally elitist at core. So long as Ottawa's hiring practices prioritize a talent only a small geographic subset of the population will ever organically develop, bilingualism will always be little more than a backdoor affirmative action plan to concentrate power in the hands of those inhabiting the bicultural fusion cities of Ottawa and Montreal  --  even as Canada's economic centre shifts steadily westward.

Continued in its present form, official bilingualism represents a ongoing threat to Canadian democracy, egalitarianism, and meritocracy, while entrenching tremendously regressive values in their place.

It's certainly a crisis worth discussing.


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