Sorry, I Don’t Speak French

Posted on | February 9, 2009 | 10 Comments

I recently read the book “Sorry, I Don’t Speak French“, which gave a very comprehensive account on the language struggle in the recent history of Canada.

To those who are not familiar with the issue, French has been spoken predominately in the Quebec province, and English in the rest of Canada. The Quebeckers resent the lack of recognition of their language in other provinces. The rest of the country wondered why so much time and effort are wasted in forcing them to learn French.

There are a lot of points to ponder after reading the book. I am going to share two of them in this post.

The author quoted William Mackey who pointed out decades ago, that there would be fewer bilingual people in bilingual countries than there would be in monolingual countries. This is not difficult to understand. A fully-functional bilingual country will guarantee the maintenance and use of either language, hence there would be no urgency for them to learn the other language. On the other hand, in a monolingual country, people (often immigrants) have to learn the official language, and becoming bilingual as a result.

The author’s interview with Stephen Harper also turned out to be very interesting. While Harper was working on improving his French back in the late 80’s, he became interested in international language policies. After studying the history, he concluded that governments in the past could not change the actual language use of individuals by simply enforcing laws and policies. It could only be done through displacing populations, through genocide, or through what is now called ethnic cleansing: mass movement of populations. The author obvious disagreed with Mr. Harper, but I tend to agree with the Prime Minister.

The author concluded that the contemporary Canada language policies have been a failure, and this I agree with him very much. He gave a few recommendations, mostly by creating more policies. I am sceptical about this. I think the real issue is not about languages. It is fundamentally a conflict of cultures.

The author was a bilingual (fluent in English and French), but he was certainly not a linguist. Sorry, I don’t think Japanese is a tonal language.


10 Responses to “Sorry, I Don’t Speak French”

  1. Jeanne Elle
    March 2nd, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    I wish I knew more about the language concerns in Quebec. (as I’m sure they’re not just random or overly reactive).

    I live in BC and I think that French, while not used nearly to the degree that it is back east, is still alive and thriving. We have a strong French Immersion stream in our BC school system, and both my kids are enrolled in it. It is something that is of high value to us, and if it was ever taken away, would be our loss.

    Meanwhile, I do what I can to promote it (i.e. telling other parents of the benefits, etc.) I’m proud of our bilingual culture, and think it would be wonderful if both languages were used nation-wide in a more balanced fashion.

  2. edwin
    March 2nd, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    Hi Jeanne,
    I also wish that both languages were used nation-wide in a more balanced fashion, including the province of Quebec.

  3. Westerner
    March 8th, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    Well, sorry to bust your balloons on this subject.

    Canada is not a bilingual country and likely never will be. Language is something that has to be used on a daily basis to gain and remain proficient. The 2006 census Canada results clearly indicate that French outside of Quebec has declined 25% including those of young supposed bilinguals educated through our immersion programs.

    Canada’s federal civil service hiring policies dictate nearly 40% of jobs be bilingual (quota). Of course this is higher in regions such as the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau) Consider for one second that their are only 13% uniligual francos in Canada. Is there something wrong with this picture? This has resulted in job discrimination against the anglo majority of Canada which is simply a by product of the social engineering being practiced in Canada. All this time, Canada, is touting itself as bilingual (and spending huges sums of money); in “unilingual french” Quebec they have “racist” language laws such as 101 which are openly disciminate against the anglo minority in Quebec. Seems that the door only swings one way, doesn’t it. Perhaps Mr. Fraser, as the Official Langauge Commissioner, should investigate !!!

    Also, consider costs of the program. Since the OLA was established by PET in 1969 hundreds of billions of dollars have been squandered on a program which has been an abysmal failure. A failed attempt to gain the respect of Quebec francos and heighten Canadian unity. Fact, failure, as we have had two separate referendums since the OLA was commenced. (1980 and 1995).

    I see Mr. Harper was interviewed. I wonder if anyone remembers his statements of a few years ago…”Bilingualism is the God that failed”. Must have changed his tune in an attempt to solicit those votes in Quebec ..that plan didn’t work to well either.

    Check it out for yourselves, the bilingualism is a complete pharce and failure. But, of course, there will be no convincing those that receive free bussing for the children enrolled in the immersion programs.

    Enough said.

  4. edwin
    March 8th, 2009 @ 6:29 pm


    Most people in Canada, except those promoting bilingualism, know that it has been a failure over the years. Some people, like Mr Fraser, want to spend more money. Others, like myself, just think it is a waste of money.

  5. Westerner
    March 9th, 2009 @ 5:29 pm


    For the most part the federal government will not allow for an honest accounting of the costs of the program as it would likely be most embarrasing for them.

    You are right saying its a ” waste of money”. Mr. Fraser is an idealist who is spending others peoples money and not his own. (easiest type of money to spend :))

  6. Westerner
    March 9th, 2009 @ 5:30 pm


    You have it right.

  7. Westerner
    March 9th, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    Sorry for the duplicate post, it was an error.

  8. mahendra singh
    March 31st, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    I’m an anglophone immigrant to Quebec, my French is comically passable but every day, in every way, I improve! The curious thing about bilingualism in Quebec is that in Montreal, the genuine ground zero for daily French-English contact, most people are bilingual and on the whole, it all just works out somehow. People adapt, even us middle-aged folks!

    I do find it depressing that in english Canada and Quebec, certain elements of the anglophone & francophone population use the language issue as a smokescreen for a deeper, rather ugly complex of prejudices & (self-inflicted) fears. Politicians on both sides deliberately fan up the fires of linguistic/cultural resentments for their own gain and to nourish the self-inflicted victimization complexes of their constituents.

    Perhaps the real problem with multilingualism internationally is that it involves the discomfort of hard mental work and a removal of engrained cultural barriers. Odd how some people will work their b*tts off for a plasma TV or a SUV but abhor learning a language and its culture!

  9. Rina Staplins
    July 30th, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    cheers for this fantastic Article. Nice topic to write about on my site. I might set a bookmark to your page.

  10. Karen from
    October 22nd, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    Wth the increase in film, TV programs and the internet do you not think that languages will continue throughout the world to blend and continuously change? You hear slang words used across continents all the time ..I think the future will be very interesting indeed!
    Speak French

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