Two Are Enough: English and French Hold This Country Together. We Don’t Need More Languages

March 20, 2006: Two Are Enough: English and French Hold This Country Together. We Don't Need More Languages

Two are enough: English and French hold this country together; we don't need more languages, official or otherwise

Steve Kaufmann
Special to the Sun

Monday, March 20, 2006

In his article on March 11, “Multilingual Games,” Kulvinder Kular does not plead for multilingualism at the Olympic Games. By their nature the Games are multilingual.

Instead, Kular pleads for making “Chinese and Punjabi official” in Canada.

As Kular explains, from 1991 to 2001, 33,000 non-English speakers per year arrived in Vancouver. In 2001, 37.6 per cent of Vancouverites were not native speakers of English. In Burnaby, 43 per cent of adults cannot fill a job application in English. Poor language and communication skills are the largest obstacle to professional immigrants finding work in their field.

An increasing number of graduates of our universities and colleges have come through ESL programs at high school. Their English is good enough for university, but often does not meet the requirements of professional employers. In Hong Kong it is common knowledge that a Vancouver university degree is no assurance of English fluency.

Poor command of English, both oral and written, is a major drain on our economy, reducing our international competitiveness and productivity. Before we invest in making Chinese or Punjabi “official,” we need to improve the English literacy level of our population.

That is not the only reason why official status for Chinese and Punjabi is a bad idea. As Kular himself admits, “language is central to a culture.” Canada is not just a piece of land. Canada is a country with two major language groups, English- and French-speaking, each with its own culture anchored in its language.

These two groups have interacted with each other historically, as they have with first nations cultures and with the cultures brought here by other newcomers.

Canada's official languages are the cement that enabled people to work together to build this country. There have always been concentrations of immigrants in different parts of Canada — Gaelic-speaking Scots, Italians, Ukrainians, Germans, Russian-speaking Doukhobors, Chinese, Japanese and many others. These newcomers often met with resistance from those who preceded them here, yet their offspring learned English (or French) and integrated with other Canadians despite the desire of their parents to pass on the ancestral language.

We have a concentration of immigration from a few sources in Greater Vancouver. We can expect the demand for official status for Chinese and Punjabi to increase. We must resist these demands.
Language services are already provided by both the private and public sector. What purpose is served by giving these languages official status?

Do we make Mandarin Chinese and Hindi-Urdu official because of their international importance, or do we make Cantonese and Punjabi official because of their local importance, despite their relatively minor importance elsewhere? Do we only accommodate these two languages, or do we include Farsi, Tagalog, Italian, Korean, German and others?

We should focus on helping newcomers, including those who come as youngsters, to achieve fluency and literacy in English so they can function effectively in our society. Their children, born here, should not need multilingual services.

To succeed we need to change the status quo. Language instruction should target significant improvement in phrasing, pronunciation and comprehension.

We need accountability, both for schools and for learners. Only those learners willing to commit to the necessary sustained effort should be helped. Promoting the values of multiculturalism and multilingual services only serves to discourage immigrants from the effort needed to achieve a real language breakthrough.

We need to identify those people who are committed to improving and offer them financial support and incentives. We should spend more on people and less on institutions. This money should come not only from government, but also from employers, who will increasingly need to hire new immigrants. Of course, the learners should also have to pay something themselves.

Following up on Victoria's commitment to literacy and e-learning, new teaching methods are needed that can take language acquisition out of the classroom and make full use of the promise of the Internet, podcasting and other technological innovation.

I speak nine languages including three Asian ones and I am interested in all cultures. But I am first and foremost a Canadian.

Let's invest in the future well-being and unity of our common community, rather than in dividing ourselves into language and cultural enclaves.

Let's stop deliberately promoting “diversity” and differences and let's see how we can help each other work together and see each other as Canadians first.

Steve Kaufmann, a former Canadian diplomat, is president of KP Wood Ltd. and The Linguist Institute Ltd. For more information, visit:
The Vancouver Sun 2006