Language of Canadian poll

Iqbal Sidhu 

There are over 100 languages spoken in Canada — after all, it’s a country of migrants. People from all over the world have come and settled in this country and they have brought with them their culture, cuisine and languages. Most of the country is still Anglophone; over 85 per cent of Canadians have working knowledge of English. French is the second most dominant language and over 20 per cent speaks it as its first language. 

A vast majority of this population lives in Quebec province. Canada started off as a settlers colony, just like its neighbour, the United States, but the settler population in Canada largely came from the two major European countries of the United Kingdom and France. Most of the European-Americans, however, have German heritage, including the current US President.

The UK and France have been rivals for over a millennium and they found a new battlefield in the vast expanse of Canadian plains. The excuse this time is culture, and consequently, the language. Canada is officially a bilingual country. Its two official languages are English and French.The federal government is required by law to provide all its services in both the languages. One is entitled to walk into any federal office across this vast country and ask for service in English or French and it will be provided. This policy of strict official bilingualism has come about after a protracted struggle between the Quebec nationalists and the federal government. The language, however, still remains a major election issue. Quebec has even voted twice in the past 40 years on whether it should secede from Canada in the interest of its culture and language — they came tantalisingly close to leaving the second time in 1995. 

South Asia was once part of the British Empire and its most lasting legacy is the English language. Therefore, South Asians have mostly migrated to commonwealth countries of the UK, Canada and Australia; or to the USA, which was itself once part of the Empire. Most first-generation immigrants do not participate in the language debate of Canada since almost always their first language is neither English nor French but once the second generation comes of age, it has been observed that they have an intrinsic interest in the issue of language. Also, if one wishes to succeed and amalgamate into the country's national mainstream, they should at least have a working knowledge of both the official languages.

Bilingualism is, however, mostly limited to the echelons of power and judiciary and it is a far cry from what one can experience in the streets. For example, in Quebec City—which is almost entirely francophone — one cannot even navigate the street signs without having at least a customary knowledge of the French language while one’s knowledge of the English language becomes redundant. Similarly, it would be a tad bit difficult to place an order at a local McDonald’s in Langley if one does not speak any English. Unlike governmental enterprises, local businesses are not bound by this tough and expensive national language law. It is one reason that Canada has flourished.

Punjabi is spoken by over 500,000 Canadians. In major cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, banks and other service companies even provide services in Punjabi and other languages. The Canadian society’s acceptance of such lingual concessions is remarkable, even though language itself remain a prickly issue on the broader national stage. It’s not uncommon to find shop signs and advertisement boards in Punjabi or Mandarin in the Greater Vancouver area, or boards in written in Urdu in Montreal. 

This phenomenon of South Asian languages gaining prominence is not confined to Canada; Telugu, for example, is the fastest growing language in the US. Given the rapid rise of other languages in countries which have historically been unilingual or bilingual, there have been suggestions to accept the Indian model. India has 23 official languages, and it is perhaps a good model to emulate to ensure national harmony in increasingly diverse societies. It's a far cry from becoming a reality but countries like Canada and the US  can, at least, look up to India when it comes to managing diversity!