Friday, June 5, 2009

Is English a Second-Class Language?

Obviously, official English is a contentious issue for the United States, wrapped up in complex issues like America's alleged status as a "propositional nation". What is interesting is that our English-speaking neighbors to the north are in a complex situation quite different (and yet, as I will show, subtly similar). Canada is a federation, like the United States, and thus each province chooses for itself what its official languages will be.

In theory, this makes perfect sense, since the linguistic details are quite different, province to province. Provinces have powers approximately equal to that of an American state or a Swiss canton. A province can be completely bilingual, completely monolingual, or it can have a main language (official to all institutions) and a secondary language (official to some).

Yet, the details of the actual arrangement come across as a little odd. Here are the provinces ranked by population, with percentages of English and French speakers, and the status of the languages in provincial government:

Quebec - 81.8% Francophone, 10.6% Anglophone - French only
New Brunswick - 69.0% Anglophone, 29.7% Francophone - fully bilingual
Ontario - 81.4% Anglophone, 2.5% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
British Columbia - 83.0% Anglophone, 0.5% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
Manitoba - 88.0% Anglophone, 1.8% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
Alberta - 89.5% Anglophone, 0.7% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
Saskatchewan - 94.4% Anglophone, 0.5% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
Nova Scotia - 96.2% Anglophone, 1.9% Francophone - English main, French 2nd
Prince Edward I. - 97.1% Anglophone, 2.1% Francophone - English main, French 2nd

Newfoundland - 98.8% Anglophone, 0.1% Francophone - English main, French 2nd

This is all the result of decisions of the individual provinces, yet patterns emerge. Looked at from a naturalist's perspective, instead of a political scientist's, the "law" would mean what predictions one could make based on viewing these patterns. If one were to go about this like a common-law judge, it would be easy to "discover the law" of official language in Canada.

If one in four residents of a province speaks French, French is guaranteed official status equal to that of English; English can hold its own if two-thirds of the population speak it.

If one in a thousand residents of a province speak French, France is guaranteed at least secondary official status. However, one in ten residents of a province speaking English does not guarantee any official status to English.

If four of every five residents of a province speaks French, France is guaranteed exclusive status as an official language. However, 98% of a province speaking English does not guarantee English any exclusive status.

Thus, the property that emerges from the collective provincial language laws is that a French speaker is worth between two and one hundred times as much as English speaker.

I raise this issue not because Canadian Anglophones are uniquely lacking in political will - quite the contrary. British police arrested an English girl for asking to be placed with students who spoke English (it was considered a "racist" incident and her request was manufactured into a "refusal" by the London press). Attempts to make English the official language of the United States are similarly branded, though the percentage of Americans who speak English as native (82%) is even higher than that of Canada (67%).

It is not just language that unites Canada, the UK, and the USA. It is also a crisis of confidence stemming from distortions of the Anglo-Saxon liberalism of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Historians can debate exactly when liberalism became leftist, exactly when xenophilia became Anglo-bashing, and the debates will prove very interesting. In any case, the idea of enforced multilingualism is a prime example of pluralism without clarity. It will prove quite costly.

No comments: