Bilingualism in Canada

Seminar Paper, 1999

17 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Bilingualism in Canada
2.1. Current linguistic situation
2.2. Origins of Canadian bilingualism
2.3. Canadian English
2.4. Canadian French
2.5. Canadianisms
2.5.1. in Canadian English speech
2.5.2. in Canadian French speech
2.6.The language planning aspect: Governmental legislation on language and language use - English vs. French
2.7. The educational situation in Canada

3. Conclusion

List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

The paper at hand will deal with the bilingual situation in Canada and will try to describe the linguistic development from the first settlements in the 16th century till today. It will soon become clear to what English Canadians have dominated the country despite all rights the Canadian French minority has struggled for over the years.

I have chosen this topic because I have always been interested in multilingual societies and the way people live together and communicate in these societies. In my opinion, the example of Canada is one of the most interesting ones to illustrate the notions “bilingualism” and “biculturalism”.

2. Bilingualism in Canada

2.1. Current linguistic situation

Canada is an officially bilingual country where the linguistic rights of the minority group, the French, have always been a subject of controversy. Of the 30 million Canadians, about 67 per cent speak English as a first language and 26 per cent speak French. The rest of the population -Native Americans and European immigrants- such as Germans and Italians in Ontario, Ukrainians in the western provinces- use their native language on a regular basis. French Canadians are concentrated in Québec (where they constitute 87 per cent of the population) and New Brunswick (34 per cent), but there are pockets of French speakers in Ontario and in the other provinces.

2.2. Origins of Canadian bilingualism

The current linguistic situation can best be understood by scanning its history. In the early 17th century both the English and the French established settlements in Québec and lived in relative peace for a while. There was some intermarriage between the two groups, and hence some settlers were bilingual in English and French. The English came over in greater numbers, however, and conquered Québec in 1759. When the French administrative élite returned to France, they left behind a peasantry, landowners, and the institutions of the Catholic Church which organized the province’s administration and commerce, which they controlled from urban areas. The French moved into towns to form an urban working class. The upper class, educated by the Church, went into liberal professions and became lawyers, doctors, notaries and clergymen. After Canada became independent in 1867, provincial politics became another attractive sphere for the French1 which they came to dominate; the English were more concerned with federal politics. This state of affairs characterized Québec’s life until after World War II. The French and the English lived in separate areas, formed different classes, engaged in different economic activities, had different religions, different languages, different schools and other institutions. Contact between francophones and anglophones was confined to limited interactions in the public arena and to the more prolonged contact between anglophone employer and francophone employee. It was the francophone employees, naturally, who became bilingual, other francophones, and most anglophones, were effectively monolingual. Even though immigrants tended to learn English, largely because English was the language of economic advancement francophones remained the majority group in Québec.

After World War II economic development caused a series of changes whose immidiate impact was felt in French society. Increased wealth encouraged the rise of a new French middle-class which was involved with the expansion of the provincial government. As the government grew stronger, it began appropriating control over various domains of social life such as education and health. Institutional divisions between ethnic groups began to crumble and religious divisons began to pale.

Furthermore, increased government contact created a necessity for a larger bureaucracy which absorbed educated francophones until, in the 1960s, it became saturated. In the 1960s, a “quiet revolution” took place among French Canadians: they secularized their schools, did away with the secular powers of the Church, and became increasingly critical of English domination in all aspects of their lives.

2.3. Canadian English

Canadian English has developed from the Loyalists’ speech, the majority of whom fled to Canada during the American Revolution. They settled in the province of Ontario and - through their speech- laid the foundations for present General Canadian, a term defining urban middle-class speech.

Canadian English can be mainly identified by examining its vocabulary and pronunciation whereas it has no distinctive grammar. As for its vocabulary, Canadians use words both from British and American English. Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil and William Cran describe reactions to this as follows:

American visitors at first think how British the Canadian vocabulary sounds (tap, braces, and porridge, instead of ‘faucet’, ‘suspenders’ and ‘oatmeal’). The British think how Americanized the Canadians have become (they hear gas, truck, and wrench for ‘petrol’, ‘lorry’, and ‘spanner’).2

This example illustrates that two great influences affect Canadian speech. There is no denying the fact that Canadians were struggling for a national identity of their own for a long time because --ven though belonging to the British Crown- the American influence was evident, which was a cause for concern according to Dr Thomas Rolph, who travelled in Ontario in 1832:

It is really melancholy to traverse the Province, and go into many of the common schools; you find a herd of children instructed by some anti-British adventurer, instilling into their young and tender minds sentiments hostile to the parent state...and American spelling-books, dictionaries and grammar, teaching them an anti-British dialect, and idiom, although living in the Province, and being subjects of the British Crown.3

There are further examples of British and American English usages splitting the Canadian nation in two: According to the “Survey of Canadian English”, approximately threequarters of Canadians prefer the British zed to the American zee in contrast to more than three-quarters of Canadians using the American pronunciation of schedule, tomato, and missile, whereas 58 per cent favour the British pronunciation for progress and new.4

On examining Canadian English pronunciation, we will find out that it is hard to distinguish from other North American varieties. Probably only a Canadian himself will detect another Canadian in a crowd of North Americans.5

According to Robert McCrum and his fellows, the most distinctive feature of Canadian speech is the diphthong/ eu/, which makes, for example, out rhyme with boat. Professor Jack Chambers calls this “an independent development in Canadian English”.6

A further interesting aspect is Canadian spelling which demonstrates the conflict between British and American spelling as well. Basically, Canadians employ elements of both although they tend to prefer Standard British English. Thus, for instance, British forms such as colour and theatre face American forms like aluminum. However, there are terms containing both: “tire centre”, for example.7

It is not only these two “Englishes” that contributed to the development of Canadian English but also -to a certain degree- Indian languages from which quite a large number of words entered Canadian English via French, such as caribou, muskat, papoose, and pemmican. ‘Canada’ itself is supposed to be derived from the Iroquois word kanata, which means ‘village’, and was adapted by the French, whose former influences still show through today: in word order for instance. It is Lake Winnipeg instead of Winnipeg Lake.8

2.4. Canadian French

The existence of Canadian French -mainly spoken in the province of Québec- goes back to European French sailors, who discovered the country in the 16th and 17th centuries, and to France’s colonial rule until 1763.9

By breaking off contacts to France, Canadian French has stuck to transmissions and to a usage of its own.10 It is marked by terms from seafaring and archaisms11, which do not exist in modern European French and/or never existed. In 1841, Abbé Thomas Maguire complained about the exaggerated usage of these “termes de marine” in his book Manuel des difficultés les plus communes de la langue francaise adaptéau jeune age et suivi d ’ un recueil de loctions vicieuses:

L’emploi abusif de termes de marine, importés au pays par les premiers colons et navigateurs, a fait à la langue une plaie, qu’il n’est pas facile de fermer. Le mal, comme une épidémie, des derniers rangs de la société, s’est communiqué aux premiers: et souvent l’éducation la plus soignée est une faible barrière contre l’emploi, à rebours du sens commun, des termes, virer, amarrer, l arguer, greiller, amarré, bordé, etc. etc. Les Instituteurs ne peuvent trop servir contre l’abus que nous signalons ici.12

This, however, is not the only aspect which -according to Maguire- makes Canadian French inferior compared to European French. The anglophone provinces surrounding Québec do influence Canadian French linguistically. Some examples are “bande de musique, collecter des dettes, cracker for ‘biscotin’, grocery for ‘épicerie’, steam-boat ‘bateau à vapeur’ etc.13 This emergence of English in Canadian French originates from political and economic circumstances which determine the usage of both languages.

2.5. Canadianisms

2.5.1. in Canadian English speech

The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles contains some 10,000 words of Canadian origin, such as “kerosene and chesterfield (sofa) and ice-hockey terms like face-off, blue-line, and puck14

Another typically Canadian element is the universal ‘eh?’, which seems to be employed rather frequently. Some examples of its usage:

I’m walking down the street, eh? (Like this, see?)

I had a few beers en I was feeling priddy good, eh? (You know how it is.)

When all of a sudden I saw this big guy, eh? (Ya see.)

He musta weight all of 220 pounds, eh? (Believe me.)

I could see him from a long ways off en he was a real big guy, eh? (I’m not fooling.)

I’m minding my own business, eh? (You can bet I was.)15

2.5.2. in Canadian French speech

Canadian French employs some expressions completely unknown in European French. The reason for this is the fact that the settlers, in those days, were confronted with an environment which was new to them and, consequently, they had to face things they had never seen before, and so they invented new words, terms and expressions to name them. V. Barbeau remarks:

Que seraient nos hivers sans les bancs de neige, les bordées, les bordages, les bordillons, la gelure, le frasil, la neigeaille, la proudrerie, la croute, les balises, la tuque, la ceinture fléchée ? Et l ’ hiver des corneilles? Que serait la foret sans ses chantiers, ses é rabli è res, ses cabanes à sucre, ses parties de sucre, ses sapinages, ses ravages de chevreuil, ses brulés, ses chats sauvages, son petit thé, ses merisiers, ses bois blancs, ses pins à corneille ? Et ce n’est pas là, je crois, travestir le francais.16

2.6. The language planning aspect: Governmental legislation on language and language use -English vs. French

In 1963, a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was set up by the federal government in Ottawa to study the status of English and French in the federal administration and to make recommendations on how to develop bilingualism at the federal level.17 The commission proposed using the personality principle because it felt that the French minorities outside Québec and the English minority inside Québec would not be treated fairly by the territorial principle.18 Based on the work of the commission, the federal government passed the Official Languages Act in 1968/69. English and French were declared official languages and were given equal status in all aspects of the federal administration. The Declaration of Status of Languages in the act reads:

The English and French languages are the official languages of Canada, and possess and enjoy equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all the institutions of the Parliament in Canada.19

The act underlined the government’s intention of making the administration bilingual so that both English and French Canadians could address civil servants in their own language.

When the Official Languages Act was passed, the people of Québec were not as favourable to it as was the federal administration in Ottawa. This was because bilingualism in a minority group is often synonymous with assimilation of that group. If all Québécois became bilingual in French and English and used both languages in exactly the same situations, there would be no need to retain both languages, and the language that would be retained might well be the dominant language of the country, English. The dominance of English becomes clear if one takes a look at the field of work. Despite this bilingualism laid down in bills, English is still the language of work and commerce, a fact French Canadians complain about:

Dans l’administration fédérale, les Canadiens de langue francaise n’ont guère de chance de se manifester comme tels: ce n’est pas seulement qu’ils doivent travailler en anglais, c’est plus fondamentalement, que les conventions, les usages et les modes administratifs de leur milieu de travail sont considéré comme l’expression des valeurs culturelles des anglophones.20

Consequently, French Canadians do not have the same chances in their professional careers as English Canadians.

In the early 1970s, the French language in Québec was felt to be in danger: French Québécois were emigrating to other provinces in search of work; the birthrate had diminished considerably; immigrants to Québec chose to learn English and not French, and English remained the dominant language in the domain of work, as already mentioned before. In a word, one could live in Québec without knowing any French. To this must be added a change in attitude among Québécois: they did not feel any longer that they were members of a Canadian minority; instead they saw themselves as a French-speaking majority in Québec. The situation led the government of Québec to run counter to the federal policy of bilingualism and to pass the Chartre de la Langue Francaise in 1977, which made French the sole official language of the province. Businesses were to adopt French as the working language (they were given a few years to do so); in the judiciary only French texts are legally binding; advertisements have to be in French, and so on. The members of the English minority retained the right to educate their children in English, but only if the parents could prove that they themselves had been educated in English in Québec.21

2.7. The educational situation in Canada

Concerning Canada’s educational situation, the Official Languages Act has not had the impact it was expected to have because each province is self-governing (like the states in the United States). About one-third of French children outside Québec still do not receive their schooling in French; many English-speaking civil servants are reluctant to learn French and the media do not offer as much air time in French as French Canadians would like. However, it is encouraging that many speakers of English, especially in Québec, are agreeing to learn and to use French, and recent census reports suggest that bilingualism is growing among those of English mother tongue. In every province or region except one, the proportion of students who are bilingual exceeds that of the general population.

Funds were allocated to second-language instruction, to minority students, and to provincial governments to implement bilingual administrations. Bilingual school districts were to be set up in French-speaking areas where at least ten per cent of the population spoke English as a mother tongue, and in English-speaking areas where ten per cent spoke French, but this part of the act was never implemented. Its overall aim was to foster “institutional” bilingualism, not personal bilingualism. As the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism stressed, a bilingual country is not one where all the inhabitants have to speak two languages, but one where public and private institutions must provide services in two languages to citizens who may be monolingual.22

3. Conclusion

It is too early to see whether this monolingual policy, similar in fact to that of many of the English-speaking provinces, will allow French to be maintained, and even develop, in Québec. It is difficult to see at this time how such a policy can coexist over time with the federal policy of bilingualism. Although much has been done in Canada, and especially in Québec, to erase two hundred years of English domination, the situation is far fron being stable. A good example of this is the separatist movement of the province trying to assert Québec’s independence, which symbolizes the province’s regained national and linguistic self-confidence after centuries of oppression. French Québécois and Formula 1 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve has some advice for strangers coming to Québec:

People here are open to anything. Talk to them in English if you have to, but if you want to do them a favour, speak French.23

To conclude, it is important to stress that “bilingual” countries do not promote individual bilingualism and do not contain many bilinguals; their linguistic role is to guarantee the use of the languages spoken within their border and to help erase, when possible, tensions between the different linguistic groups.

List of Works Cited

Bach, Ralf; “Die Wurzeln des Weltmeisters”; Sports (Hamburg, 3/1998)

Coulombe, Pierre A.; Language Rights in French Canada (New York, 1995)

Domingue, Nicole; “L’Usage bilingue dans le Centre de Montréal”; Paradis, Michel (ed.); Aspects of Bilingualism (Columbia, 1978)

Geckeler, Horst; Einf ü hrung in die franz ö sische Sprachwissenschaft (Berlin, 1992)

Genesee, Fred; “The Canadian Second Language Immersion Program”; Bratt Paulston, Christina (ed.); International Handbook of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education (1988)

McCrum,Robert et al.; The Story of English (London, 1992)

Wolf, Lothar; Franz ö sische Sprache in Kanada (München, 1987)


1 Lothar Wolf, Franz ö sische Sprache in Kanada (München, 1987), p.98

2 Robert McCrum et al., The Story of English (London, 1992), p.263

3 Ibid., pp.263/264

4 Ibid., p.265

5 Ibid., p.264

6 Ibid., p.267

7 Ibid., p.264

8 Ibid., p.263

9 Horst Geckeler, Einf ü hrung in die franz ö sische Sprachwissenschaft (Berlin, 1992), p.27

10 Wolf, Franz ö sische Sprache in Kanada, p.71

11 Ibid., p.76

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p.77

14 McCrum, The Story of English, p.265

15 Ibid., p.264

16 Wolf, Franz ö sische Sprache in Kanada, p.89

17 Nicole Domingue, „L’Usage bilingue dans le Centre de Montréal“, in: Michel Paradis (ed.), Aspects of Bilingualism (Columbia, 1978), p.229

18 Pierre A. Coulombe, Language Rights in French Canada (New York, 1995), p.102

19 Fred Genesee, „The Canadian Second Language Immersion Program“, in: Christina Bratt Paulston (ed.), International Handbook of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education (1988), pp.164/165

20 Wolf, Franz ö sische Sprache in Kanada, p.98

21 Ibid., p.116

22 Ibid., p.101

23 Ralf Bach, „Die Wurzeln des Weltmeisters“, in: Sports (Hamburg, 3/1998), pp. 42/43 [my translation]

17 of 17 pages


Bilingualism in Canada
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Sabrina Buurmann (Author), 1999, Bilingualism in Canada, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 8/21/2001

    bilungualism in canada.

    was bedeutet denn "ibid" in der bibliography???
    gruß frank

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