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Notes for an address at the
“Bilingualism in a Plurilingual Canada: Research and Implications” colloquium
held by the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Good evening.

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight for the inaugural colloquium of the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute. Established last summer, the Institute has proven to truly be a leader in official languages and bilingualism through events such as this one. I would also like to acknowledge the presence of Canadian Parents for French, the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers and SEVEC. I appreciate the close working relationship that we have established.

I think it’s also important to mention that the government released its Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality today. I am relieved to learn that the federal government’s new official languages plan will allow the progress accomplished over the past five years to continue.

In January, I spoke at a symposium on research in official languages organized by Canadian Heritage, my Office and various federal institutions, which brought together public servants, researchers and stakeholders. As I noted then, research remains one of the driving forces behind linguistic duality—and plurilingualism. 

I also noted—and I continue to emphasize this today—that it is essential for the government to use research both to support and guide policy and program development, and to assess the progress made in terms of bilingualism and the vitality of official language communities. Research also serves to identify the shortcomings that must be addressed in these communities. I hope that departments will take into account the work carried out by all researchers in the field of official languages and bilingualism, many of whom are here today, since I believe research continues to be under-utilized by federal institutions as a tool for developing policies and programs.

I commend the Institute and its partners for its efforts in ensuring that information is properly disseminated to a wider readership, including teachers and other interested parties. This is the type of initiative that I would like to see implemented across the board. I am a great believer in our language researchers here in Canada, and my Office continues to strive to support their work in many different ways. As noted by Mr. Vandergrift, my Office will be funding a special issue of The Canadian Modern Language Review, which will include articles based on the papers presented at this colloquium.

My Office has been studying the relationship between cultural diversity and linguistic duality for some time now. Last year, we held a forum with members of minority communities in Toronto to gain a better understanding of their point of view on the matter. And another forum is planned for this fall, this time in Vancouver.

Because of the growing diversity in the country, some people argue that language requirements in the federal public service are a barrier to visible minority Canadians. In actual fact, according to a study carried out by the Canadian Human Rights Commission on visible minority Canadians between the ages of 20 and 49, we found they were slightly more bilingual in English and French than English-speaking Canadians. The latest Statistics Canada data confirm that allophones—those whose mother tongue is neither English nor French—are indeed more bilingual in Canada’s two official languages than Anglophones. This, of course, means that these allophones actually speak a minimum of three languages.

From my experience and through my encounters with Canadians across the country, I would add that many minority groups are very open to learning both official languages, and are aware of this reality before they even set foot in this country. For example, the Chinese community of Vancouver welcomed the opening of the offices of the Alliance française. Members of their community believed that their children would be best served knowing both official languages, as they would be more likely to go work in Montréal, or in Ottawa, than in Hong Kong or Beijing.

According to Patricia Lamarre, “immigrant families opt to promote the development of child multilingualism and attribute value to it in reference to national and international market forces.”1 She adds that “young immigrants (second generation youth) adopt a transnational perspective, recognizing the advantages of being part of a local community as well as a global community that shares the language.”

This leads me to another point. Many Canadian families today are often in themselves a melting pot of languages. By the time their children—in particular those from exogamous or allophone families—are of school age, they have two, if not three, languages under their belts.

It’s no wonder that I find it disconcerting that many Canadians are still having difficulty learning and maintaining two languages. I also find it unfortunate that some still question the value of learning another language.

However, I would agree with G. Richard Tucker and Deborah Dubiner when they say that “present educational practices do not encourage bilinguals, nor do they assist, nurture or help them to maintain their native language skills as they add English or French to their repertoire.”2

In Europe, there have been many initiatives put in place over the past few years to promote second- and third-language learning, and to ensure a proper level of learning. I was delighted to meet Joseph Sheils of the Council of Europe, and we discussed the European common framework of reference for languages, establishing standards for all EU countries.

In Canada, we have similar initiatives in place to measure the second-language proficiency of adults and prospective immigrants through the Canadian Language Benchmarks. Much work is also being done by the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers (CASALT) and the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to establish a common framework for the evaluation of second-language competencies and the functional knowledge of secondary school students.

I encourage post-secondary institutions to continue to contribute to this dialogue and engage in more collaborative research on the advantages of implementing such an initiative in Canada. This could ensure that proper levels of learning are met and that our children are properly equipped with language knowledge by the time they reach the post-secondary level.

Post-secondary institutions have a key role to play, and a few leaders are already emerging. A good example is the École des hautes études commerciales (HEC) in Montréal, which has developed a trilingual public administration program, the first cohort of which is set to graduate this year. And this program is continuing to gain in popularity. Presently, my office is conducting a study on second-language learning opportunities in Canadian universities in order to better grasp the situation, contribute answers to how to build on the advances we’ve made and rectify any shortfalls.

If we truly want to reach our goal of a 50% bilingualism rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 19 by 2013—one of the goals of the 2003 Action Plan—we must act now. And, as I’ve said before, we must stop overlooking a key factor in the learning process—the importance of culture. Despite the fact that there are 300,000 students in French immersion, it seems to me that there is less interest now in French-language literature, music and film than there was when Michel Tremblay, Gilles Vigneault and Claude Jutra first emerged. I first heard Gilles Vigneault at the University of Toronto in 1964, and I first heard Robert Charlebois in a rock concert at Varsity Stadium at U of T in 1969. When was the last time Francophone artists the likes of Pierre Lapointe, Paul Piché or Richard Desjardins performed in an English setting? 

Denys Arcand’s Academy Award-winning film Les invasions barbares did better at the box office in Australia than it did in English Canada. Les trois petits cochons, the film that did better at the box office last year than any other Canadian film, winning the Golden Reel Award at last March’s Genies, has never been shown commercially in English Canada—although Bon Cop, Bad Cop is a happy exception to the rule.


Today, there is no doubt about the value of learning a second language, or a third, or even a fourth. Advantages are not hard to come up with. International market forces are redefining the value of languages3 and many countries have been quick to realize that they can no longer function with only one language.

Indeed, it is much easier to learn a third language than it is to learn a second language.

And from an economic point of view, the need for bilingual and multilingual people in the communications field has exploded. Having these competencies gives candidates a great competitive edge, and often represents a higher pay scale. According to Colin Baker, and I would agree, “bilingualism has become a marketable ability to bridge languages and cultures, securing trade and delivery of services.”4

He also adds that “the concept that speaking English is all one needs [...] is naive.” In my latest annual report, I quoted the Nuffield Foundation, from the UK, as saying that “We are fortunate to speak a global language but, in a smart and competitive world, exclusive reliance on English leaves the UK vulnerable and dependant on the linguistic competence and the goodwill of others.”5 The UK decided to implement a program in order to increase the level of multilingualism among its youth since it realized that unilingualism only added to its isolation.

This situation applies just as well to Canada.

And colloquia such as these give exposure to the linguistic realities of our country. The work you do has not gone unnoticed and I assure you that my office is working hard to assist you in having your voices heard in government and in the various language communities so that we may continue to strive for language excellence in Canada.

Thank you.

1 Patricia Lamarre, “Language practices of trilingual youth in two Canadian cities,” in Recueil de textes : colloque plurilinguisme et identité(s) : comprendre le pluralisme dans le Québec et le Canada d'aujourd'hui, Montréal: Centre d'études ethniques des universités montréalaises, 2007.

2 G. Richard Tucker and Deborah Dubiner, “Concluding Thoughts: Does the Immersion Pathway Lead to Multilingualism?” in Tara Williams Fortune and Diane J. Tedick, eds., Pathways to Multilingualism: Evolving Perspectives on Immersion Education, Clevedon, England, Multilingualism Matters Ltd., 2008.

3 Patricia Lamarre, “Language practices of trilingual youth in two Canadian cities,” in Recueil de textes : colloque plurilinguisme et identité(s) : comprendre le pluralisme dans le Québec et le Canada d'aujourd'hui, Montréal: Centre d'études ethniques des universités montréalaises, 2007.

4 Colin Baker, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4th ed., Toronto, Multilingualism Matters, 2006, p. 425.

5 The Nuffield Foundation, Languages: The Next Generation, London, 2000.