We reported it, but we have to admit it scarcely counts as news: Canada will not reach the federal government's stated goal of having half of its high school graduates capable of speaking both French and English by the year 2013. So says Bernard Lord, the former New Brunswick premier who is currently preparing a report on the state of Canada's official languages. According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, which were released Dec. 4, the trend in English-French bilingualism amongst Canadians aged 15-19 is actually headed downward. In the 1996 census, the rate of bilingualism in the age group was over 16%; in 2006 it was around 13%. For the population generally, the rate of bilingualism among mother-tongue francophones in Quebec is remaining static at around one-third. For anglophones outside Quebec it grew very slightly in the 10-year period, moving from 8.8% to 9.4%.
By these and other measures, Canadian bilingualism policy appears to be consuming a great deal of money and providing little visible progress. The francophone communities outside Quebec remain on life support; their members use French with each other but generally feel comfortable conducting trade and socializing in English. Anglos in Quebec retain their embattled but entrenched status. Overwhelmingly, Canada remains a land whose linguistic map is simple and sharply divided. As a social engineering project, the effort to turn us all into patriotic polyglots has failed. It will be left up to Mr. Lord whether he wants to use this fact to plead for greater revenue expenditures and effort, or whether it is time to pursue humbler dreams.
Those who achieve fluency in a second language rarely regret it, and in a bilingual state it is inevitable that there will be a bilingual elite of some size in the ranks of government, the military and business. But we see no shame, and great sense, in accepting Canada the way it is and beginning to build policy on that basis. As a country we can be proud of surviving (almost uniquely) as a bilingual democracy, of building a federal civil service that works more or less successfully in both languages everywhere and of making second-language education available from sea to sea for those who wish their children to have it.
Conventional measures of bilingualism, which focus on the ability to hold a conversation in both languages, certainly underestimate the value a child derives from merely becoming acquainted with the rudiments of a second language. It is worthwhile to have schools that open the door to French (outside Quebec) or English (within Quebec) without forcing the student all the way through. The age curve suggests that even fully bilingual high school graduates will lose their second language anyway if they don't find a way to use it at work or in daily life. We cannot hope to redraw the language map of the country at will without an effort bordering on the totalitarian: short of that, labour markets and other pressures causing population shifts will go on spilling the ink hither and thither as they please.