Multilingualism: speaking with one voice

A new language law was approved in Graubünden in 2007 to put Italian and Romansh on a more equal footing with German in the canton. Keystone

If you only speak one language, and you happen to live in a multilingual country like Canada or Switzerland, Graham Fraser is the guy to have on your side.

This content was published on April 4, 2016 minutes

I’m waiting in the lobby of the west wing of the Swiss parliament for Graham Fraser, Canada’s Commissioner of Official LanguagesExternal link, to be ushered in by his Swiss counterpart, Nicoletta Mariolini.

I’m curious as to what language the English and Italian speakers have chosen to converse in when they arrive. It’s French.

Graham Fraser zVg

Fraser is fluent in French, both spoken and written, which puts the language ombudsman in an ideal position to take part in a debate in the Swiss capital. The subject being discussed is dry but one about fundamental rights: access to public services in your language, as long as it’s an official one. Fraser has stated that part of his job is to guarantee the right of people to remain unilingual. With only a small window to talk to him before he is ushered away, I wanted to ask him about that in order to understand why that’s so important.

The paradox

“It’s a paradox at the heart of Canada’s language policy,” he replies, explaining that at its core the legislation – introduced in 1969 – guarantees French speakers the same level of services from the federal government as English speakers.

He continues with an unpretentious description of the language situation in Canada: “In some ways it’s misleading to say that Canada is a bilingual country if that suggests that everybody is required or inspired to learn both languages. It is a country with two language communities, both of which are a majority unilingual, and the bridge between these two communities is the federal government.”

Parlez-vous Deutsch?

Therefore it comes as a surprise to learn that Canada’s francophone community is much more bilingual than the three official language groups of Switzerland, a country that prides itself on its linguistic prowess. More than 40% of French-Canadians can converse in English. For Canada as a whole, the figure is about 17%External link, whether it’s English or French. That’s compared to only 7.5% of people living in either of Switzerland’s German- or French-speaking regions who claim they can get by in their second Swiss language. Less than 2% can manage all three.

At the heart of the issue – and the reason Fraser was invited to Switzerland – is the challenge governments face in continuing to provide flawless services to residents, regardless of the language they speak.

One of the Swiss public policy experts at the event, Peter Knoepfel, said Switzerland had met its goals from a quantitative point of view but there “are still doubts concerning the language skills of employees, and particularly managers” in the federal administration.

Knoepfel added that education was the key to readdressing the issue by ensuring schools expose Swiss pupils to a second Swiss language at an early age. However some cantons have been putting English ahead of French on the curriculum, which he said could “have repercussions for national linguistic cohesion”.

A University of Fribourg studyExternal link one year ago looked at the language results of 3,700 grade 6 and 8 students in six German-speaking cantons where English is taught from grade 3 and French from grade 5. The results were sobering: only 3.4% of the grade 8 students achieved a satisfactory level in the speaking test. Writing skills were better, but still poor, with 37% deemed satisfactory. In English, 65.6% of students received passing marks for their writing ability. 

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Playing catch up

In addition, playing catch up by providing language courses for people in public sector jobs usually falls short of the goal since it’s a much greater challenge for adult learners to attain a good command of a second language.

In Canada, each year about 300,000 English-speaking students are registered in French immersion programmes, meaning all their studies are in French. However, Fraser tells me that that number hasn’t grown since the end of the 1980s. He argues that universities have to do a better job raising awareness among students of the importance of being bilingual. It also helps when applying for a job with the federal government – the country’s biggest employer. If universities do their part, Fraser reckons, the message will trickle down to high schools.

Fraser has been there. He left high school with a basic level of French. It was his determination to gain a better understanding of Canada’s other language region that spurred him on, and no doubt a lot of hard work led to success. He experienced a defining moment when working as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig in Quebec. Another volunteer noted that he was a different person when speaking French.

“I snapped at her and said ‘Of course I’m different, I’m stupid, I’m inarticulate and I have no sense of humour’.”

Linguists have long wrestled with how language shapes our identity. His anecdote shows that if the adage is true that we are what we eat, it is also true that we are what we speak.

You can follow the author on Twitter @dalebechtelExternal link

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