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Other languages should be deemed as official

Canada is a diverse country, as can be seen from  the variety of  languages that people speak from coast to coast. However in most parts of the country you wouldn’t be able to tell just how diverse our linguistic landscape is, since most official signs and representations are in French, English, or both.

Signs are in French and English because those are our official national languages, but they shouldn’t be the only ones we grant a special status to. 1 in every 5 Canadians have a first language that isn’t English or French, and there are over 196 languages spoken in Canada, including 66 Indigenous languages. As a nation that values our diversity we should be respecting and celebrating these languages.

It can be expensive for the government to support other languages, and large sums of money are already spent on bilingualism at the federal level. However, our government needs to do a better job of making people feel welcome in this country through the signs that they see everyday. Policy makers should be supporting and mandating the use of non-official languages in sectors of our country where those languages are widely spoken.

In Vancouver the most widely spoken non-official language is Punjabi, which almost 150,000 people identified as their mother tongue in 2011. That same year the population of Vancouver was just over 600,000 people. Isn’t it reasonable that this almost a quarter of the population can see signs in their native language?

Most discussions of introducing new official languages also ignore the multitude of languages spoken by Indigenous Canadians. If we are aiming for real reconciliation with these groups then providing federal funds to make local Indigenous languages visible and recognized is a good start.

Plans of this sort have already been implemented in parts of British Columbia, and the federal government should be making this a priority across the country. Even a grocery store chain in northern Canada has begun putting up labels with local languages. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the government to be held to the same standard as a place that sells laundry detergent.

Languages are about more than communication. They highlight what parts of our history and present time we think of as important. By excluding certain languages we show those communities that their role is not as important as the role played by those people who natively speak English and French. That needs to change.

David Campion-Smith, Opinions Editor.

English and French are enough

Bilingualism costs the country $2.4 billion a year. Before we start talking about culture, or linguistic diversity, let’s remember that bilingualism has a multi-billion dollar price tag. What naturally follows from this is obvious. Giving more languages with the prestigious title of ‘official’ is guaranteed to pile on the billions.

These billions of dollars already being spent are used on minority language services. In other words, on accommodating French speakers outside of Quebec. To understand why minority language services cost billions, one must understand Canada’s uniquely strong language laws.

In Canada, declaring something as an official language means foisting a multitude of obligations onto individuals in the federal government. French and English share the title of official language because according to the Charter or Rights, have equal status in all federal institutions. This entails a list of entitlements that speakers of either official language ar granted including the right to government services in your preferred language and courts must accommodate either language, among others. Declaring an official language is a big and expensive commitment.  

There is a reason government positions are filled with bilingual employees, because it’s often a required part of the job. By expanding the number of official languages you’re now saying that government workers may need to know three or more languages.

We certainly could have a discussion about changing the aforementioned parameters. India, for example, recognizes 23 languages as official but only conducts government business in two of them. If we really want to bestow Punjabi, Mandarin, or an assortment of other languages the title of official then we could copy India’s model and get rid of  the government obligations that accompany the title. However, that would undercut the benefits of making a language official in the first place.

There’s a reasonable alternative to both of these solutions: leave it up to the province. The infrastructure already exists to make this change happen. When languages are local to a region, it’s much easier to adjust the official languages of said region versus doing so nationwide. Moreover, education already falls within provincial jurisdiction. Local school boards are better equipped to assess and respond to changing linguistic environments. In Vancouver, where there is an increasing Mandarin-speaking population, it’s reasonable to offer more Mandarin courses. But that is a provincial matter, and provinces should be left to do what they do best. Don’t add hundreds of billions to provincial budgets in the name of multiculturalism.

Language expansion can also be a shortsighted affair. A popular justification for more official languages is to point to population numbers. In 2011 there were 389,000 people in Canada who identified Cantonese as their mother tongue. While that amounts to just 1.5 per cent of the national population, it’s still a significant amount of people. Recently, however, Mandarin has overtaken Cantonese.

If Cantonese was made an official language when it was the third most used language, does it retain its status when it was bumped to the fourth place spot? It’s difficult for a government to stay on top of a constantly shifting assortment of languages.

All of this is to say, unless a language can get beyond single digit representation in nationwide surveys, it should not be considered as an official language. The numbers are too turbulent to be practical, especially considering all of the implications official language status brings along for the ride.

Thus, when bilingualism is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, adding more official languages better have some billion dollar benefits.

Connor Chase, Fulcrum Contributor.