SPECIAL REPORT

ACCENTS OF CONFLICT

THE MELTING POT MENACES LINGUISTIC MINORITIES

BARRY CAME June 25 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

ACCENTS OF CONFLICT

THE MELTING POT MENACES LINGUISTIC MINORITIES

BARRY CAME June 25 1990

ACCENTS OF CONFLICT

THE MELTING POT MENACES LINGUISTIC MINORITIES

PORTRAIT OF TWO NATIONS

Language is Calvin J. Veltman’s business. He is a linguistic demographer, an academic who charts and maps shifting language trends. He was born in Chicago, worked in New York City and now lives in Montreal, where he teaches at the French-language University of Quebec. In the United States, he has authored a landmark study into the future of Spanish in that country. In Canada, he has explored the same terrain with regard to French. The bearded, 49-yearold professor is, as a result, more qualified than most to compare Canada and the United States on the issue of bilingualism and biculturalism. And in Veltman’s opinion, there is absolutely no difference between the two countries when it comes to the assimilation of minority languages. “They are identical,” he asserts. “It is a myth that Canada is essentially bicultural while America is essentially not. While it may be true that there is an English-speaking part of Canada and a French-speaking part, what it really boils down to is both countries are North American. And North American culture— whether French or English—is the same.”

Statistical evidence supports that opinion. Despite vastly different approaches to the thorny question of language, Canada and the United States share remarkably similar patterns of assimilation. Although the evidence is often incomplete, and sometimes contradictory, it suggests that minority languages in both countries are gravely threatened. In Canada outside of Quebec, the proportion of the population whose mother tongue is French is in decline. The 950,000 members of those nonQuebec francophone communities are subject to high rates of assimilation.

Inside Quebec, anglophone communities have all but disappeared everywhere but on the island of Montreal, where the bulk of the 680,000 remaining English-speaking residents of the province reside. And in the United States, all minority tongues, with the possible exception of Navaho, would face outright extinction were it not for the replenishing effects of immigration. That is true even for the 20 million Hispanics in the United States, a community that has been growing at an average rate of four per cent a year for the past decade. As Veltman remarked, “Almost everywhere you look, the melting pot is at work.”

Despite the similarities, however, the overwhelming majority of both Canadians and Americans, as the Maclean ’s/Decima Two Nations poll shows, express a belief that Canada is indeed a place where languages other than English are accepted. Nine out of 10 Canadians surveyed in the poll, and three out of four Americans, say that French-speaking Quebecers would be more likely to retain their language and culture as part of Canada than as part of the United States. “They have a better chance of surviving in Canada,” said Michael Wolfe, 43, a New York-born human resources director who moved to California after studying and working in Montreal and Ottawa during the 1970s. “I think people in this country are less tolerant in accommodating language differences. People are more forced to be Ameri-

cans. Here you are an American-Italian. In Canada, it tends to be reversed and you are an Italian-Canadian.”

That perception is supported by the fact that Canada is, officially at least, a bilingual country. It has been 21 years since the first Official Languages Act was passed by Parliament, guaranteeing the use of French and English in more than 160 federal government institutions. That law was substantially revised and updated in 1988 to make good the constitutional guarantees in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The same year, Parliament adopted the Multiculturalism Act. And last year, in September, a bill creating the Canadian Heritage Languages Institute was presented in the House of Commons.

If approved, the bill will facilitate the acquisition, retention and use of the scores of mother tongues that immigrants first brought to the country.

Canada’s legislative efforts on behalf of minority languages and cultures have been more than empty gestures. Successive Canadian governments have spent billions of dollars in an attempt to implement the official language policy. In the last fiscal year, the federal commissioner of official languages,

er languages,

D’Iberville Fortier, reported that federal spending on lan-

Nothing in the United States compares with either the scale or the intent of Canadian endeavors. The American experience, in fact, has been almost directly contrary. While the government in Ottawa spent close to $300 million last year to help fund a broad range of provincial and local bilingual education programs, to cite just one example, Washington allocated the Canadian-dollar equivalent of $180 million that year for U.S. department of education bilingual programs.

It was not only the funding that differed, but

guage programs totalled $589.6 million and resulted in 3,852 person-years of work by bureaucrats. Current-year budgets for those programs are $626.1 million and 3,645 personyears. As well, there have been a host of less ambitious provincial initiatives, mainly in Ontario and Quebec. also the ultimate purpose. The Canadian programs supported second-language instruction in either French or English for 2.5 million elementary and secondary school students. The U.S. programs, in contrast, focused narrowly on 240,000 pupils in 792 local school projects. Most of those children were Spanish-

speaking. All were handicapped by limited English proficiency. The objective: to equip them with English so that they could move as quickly as possible into the country’s mainstream. As James Crawford, a Washington writer who is the author of an in-depth history of bilingual education in the United States, observed, “The aim of 99 per cent of federally funded bilingual programs in this country is not to assist students in acquiring a second language, but, rather, to help them discard their first.”

Despite that, it is perhaps ironic that bilingual education is under attack in the United States largely because opponents claim to detect a trend away from the strictly transitional nature of existing programs towards the Canadian model. “Canada is constantly being held up as an example of everything bad that can happen as a result of bilingualism,” said Jamie Draper, acting director of the Washingtonbased Joint National Committee for Languages, a research group for 36 language teacher associations in the United States. “The opposition points to the problems between Quebec and English Canada and claims it is

going to happen down here, too, unless something is done to put a stop to things.”

The opposition is led by an organization known as U.S.English, founded in 1983 by the Vancouver-born educator, linguistics specialist and former U.S. senator S. I. Hayakawa. Operating out of a suite of well-appointed Washington offices around the corner from the White House, the group is dedicated to a campaign for a constitutional amendment or a law that would designate English as the official language of the United States. Resolutions to that effect have languished in Congress ever since they were first introduced a decade ago by then-Senator Hayakawa, now 83. But his organization, which has informal communications links with the Ontario-based Association for the Preservation of English in Canada, has had better luck on a state level. In all, 18 states have declared themselves officially and unilingually English, including almost all of those states with large concentrations of Hispanics. “Language is a bridge, and in this country that bridge has always been English,” said Kathryn Bricker, executive director of U.S.English. “We want to make sure it remains that way.”

It may well be an unnecessary effort. As Calvin Veltman shows in his 1988 study of the future of Spanish in the United States, it is not English that is threatened. He found that after Hispanic immigrants had been in the country for 15 years, 75 per cent of them were speaking English on a regular daily basis. Seven out of 10 children of Hispanic immigrants became English speakers for all practical purposes. And the grandchildren of immigrants nearly all had English as their mother tongue. Much the same situation prevails in Canada. Francophones are fading away in English Canada, anglophones in French Canada. Those realities of life in North America suggest that, no matter how vigorous the endeavor to resist the pattern, it is the melting pot that will prevail in the end.

BARRY CAME