Mon, Apr 19 2010
Here's a notice for a lecture John Ralston Saul gave on at Simon Fraser
University in Vancouver. Note well the following:
John Ralston Saul's public speech entitled: "Reinventing the language
of citizenship/ Reinventer la langue de la citoyennete" will be presented
in Canada's two official languages. Please note the speech will alternate
between French and English with no simultaneous translation.
I can understand why the lecture might be given in French. Or in English.
Or in either with translation. But both with no translation? Do that and
you will ensure that more than nine out of ten people in the city in which
you are giving the lecture will be unable to understand what you are
saying. So what is this except a symbolic gesture of... Of what, exactly?
Bilingual idealism? Contempt for the unilingual?
The explicitness of that notice is rare but neither the attitude nor the
practice are, at least not in Ottawa. Years ago, after moving here, I was
amazed at how, in Official Ottawa -- ie. the Ottawa of the federal
government -- it's perfectly acceptable for public speakers to switch back
and forth between languages, without translation, even to the extent of
setting up a joke in one language and delivering the punchline in another.
This would be admirable in an ideal world in which all Canadians could
laugh along. But in this world, this is a very effective way to shutting
out the overwhelming majority of Canadians who are unilingual. So why do
they do it? It's not contempt, at least I hope not. A little of it is
idealism. But more, I suspect, is the result of sheer obliviousness.
Living in the little hothouse of Official Ottawa -- and a similar bubble
in Montreal -- bilingualism's enthusiasts really don't comprehend how
alien this is to the reality of most Canadians. Or how alienating.
- - -
My thanks to Maxwell Yalden
Mon, Apr 19 2010
Whenever someone complains of the burden of becoming bilingual in order to
land, or keep, a federal job, bilingualism's more unreasonable advocates
reply with a Nike slogan: just do it. Look at this person who did it. Look
at that person. Clearly, anyone can do it. So just do it. The nastier
among them then add an extra little dig: unless you're too stupid or lazy,
This column was a response to this (to use an undeservedly grand term)
argument. In response, former official languages commissioner Max Yalden
wrote this letter which can be summarized in three words: just do it.
Every consideration I raised is irrelevant to Yalden. He does not
acknowledge that environment matters enormously in the acquisition of a
new language. He does not admit that the monetary cost of learning that
language can be too much for those who do not have access to
taxpayer-funded lessons. He simply repeats a blatantly illogical claim --
some motivated people have become bilingual therefore all motivated people
can -- and leaves us with the unspoken conclusion that anyone who doesn't
become bilingual is simply unmotivated. Which is more polite than calling
them lazy and stupid, I suppose.
And so my thanks to Yalden. I've long believed bilingualism's advocates
push the principle without regard for reality. He has proved the point
UPDATE: And another thing... that point about my inaccuracy is misleading.
We not talking about judges being able to follow the play-by-play of a
Canadiens game in French. They must listen to lawyers make arguments
dealing with complex, often-arcane legal matters. The rationale for not
permitting them to do so with the benefit of an interpreter is, according
to Graham Fraser, that the interpreter might miss some of the "nuance." In
other words, a Supreme Court judge must be able to comprehend complex
legal analysis, in both officials languages, to such a degree of
sophistication that they would catch nuances that a professional
interpreter would miss. That's a very high bar. It is absurd to suggest
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