ANG 160 Fall 2005
by Heather Todd
Canada has been described many times as one of the most multicultural countries in
the world. This classification creates a sense of pride in many Canadians who feel that it identifies them as being free-thinking and tolerant towards the cultural other. Nevertheless, what are the essential factors that make a group of people bind themselves together into one nation, and defend it, often with their lives? What does living in a multicultural nation imply for individual citizens on a day to day basis? Furthermore, at the end of the day, does Bill 101 encourage or discourage linguistic othering?
Although many Canadians have argued against the legitimacy of Bill 101, a strong
argument can also be made in favour of its outspoken authenticity. “Language is not merely a medium of communication — however important that medium is — but the unifying factor of a particular culture and often a prerequisite for its survival” (Saint-Jacques and Giles, 1979). Although culture, race, history, beliefs, values, and norms are all part of the bond that tether people together, ‘language is the foremost symbol of cultural identity’ (Taylor and Wright, 1989).
However, the power of language is a double edged sword. “If nationalism is an ideology of the first person plural, which tells ‘us’ who ‘we’ are, then it is also an ideology of the third person. There can be no ‘us’ without ‘them’” (Billig, 1995). Furthermore, language can be used to establish hegemony of one group over another. For example, being ‘tolerant’ towards the cultural other is a form of ‘othering’ because the people doing the tolerating are at the center, and therefore, have the power to decide who they do or do not tolerate linguistically.
The Canadian Multiculturalism Act (CMA), adopted in 1988, attempts to suggest that in a multicultural society it is possible for many different cultures to live side by side in a harmonious multi-cultural weave. Moreover, it evokes the idea that within this cultural weave the pursuit of happiness can and should be exercised by all. Yet, can this egalitarian mosaic transcend and become more than just government policy? In Canada, immigration is a joint responsibility shared by the Federal and Provincial governments. Using the CMA to defend immigrant’s language rights, the argument to deny children of non-Francophone immigrants access to education in English could be seen as a form of linguistic othering. But history has taught us that when a population of immigrants bound together by a common culture and language is increased to the point where they physically out number the population of the hegemony, the center of the nation may become displaced onto the fringes. The consistent degradation of the Native Peoples of Canada is one example of how this shift in power can incarcerate a nation.
The passing of Bill 101 is a means to an end: it is a matter of survival for the Québécois hegemony. Statistics show that in 2003 the number of immigrants who choose Québec as their first Canadian home was 35,551. Consequently, if the children of non-Francophone immigrants were granted the right to be educated in English, the Québécois way of life could be sent adrift, absorbed or assimilated. This event would contradict the ideology of the CMA. The Québec Immigration web site designed for potential immigrants clearly states “French is the official language” in Québec, and “children of immigrants are required to enrol in French school” (Québec-A French-speaking society).
Although living in Estrie offers a myriad of experiences that relate to linguistic othering, a recent experience in a computer lab turned out to be a rude awakening. A student who was trying to find out if anyone had found her compact disc, left behind in one of the computers by her friend, was having a difficult time getting anyone to pay attention to her. Busy students with deadlines to meet did not appear to have the time to stop and listen to a cultural other who pronounced the language of the nation in a gram-matically incorrect variation, even though she spoke clearly and concisely in French. As I sat there dumbfounded at the back of the lab, I began to see the world through this young lady’s eyes, and I felt ashamed. I was reacting like a busy parent who did not have the time to decode the strange utterances of a young child learning the language. Consequently, I raised my voice high and loud and began to respond to her telling her that there were no compact discs to be found in my area. Remember, I just gave her some bad news, but the smile that appeared on her face was one of great relief and it made me feel good as well. In a wave of agreement, the other students began to check their computers and also respond to her.
Language subordination (Lippi-Green, 1997), which can lead to negative linguistic othering, is happening all around us. Linguistic variations that do not match the standard are often expressed in negative moral terms such as ‘broken’ English, ‘bad’ grammar, or ‘uneducated’ speech. “These labels insinuate that speech is an indicator of personal worth rather than a reflection of an arbitrary yet systematic code” (Gordon, 1981). Sometimes, sadly enough, citizens from the center do not feel any responsibility or need to accom-modate the cultural other linguistically. Ultimately, Bill 101 encourages and discourages linguistic othering. As much as it protects the language rights of the hegemony in Québec and the Québécois way of life, it also triggers language subordination. To ensure the continued existence of a nation, this duality may be impossible to avoid.
Bereiter, C., and Engelmann, S. 1966. Teaching disadvantaged children in the preschool. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Billig, M. 1995. Banal Nationalism. SAGE Publications
Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Gordon, G.C.B. 1981. Verbal Deficit. London: Croom Helm Ltd.
Lippi-Green, R. 1997. In English with an accent: language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
Saint-Jacques, B., and Howard Giles. 1979. Preface, in Howard Giles &B. Saint-Jacques (Editors): Languages and Ethnic Relations. Oxford: Pergamon
Taylor, Donald M., and Stephen C. Wright. 1989. Language Attitudes in a Multicultural Northern Community. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies. 9 1989 p.85-119
The Canadian Multiculturalism Act. 1988.
Author unknown—unsigned work. “Othering” the World: Contrastive Rhetoric As Cultural Caricature.
Richard Baumann, and Charles L. Briggs. 2003. Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Politics of Inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zamel, V. 1997. Toward a model of transculturation. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 341-352.