The Limits of Bilingualism

I found this op-ed from J. J. McCullough in the Washington Post on Canada’s bilingualism interesting. Here’s a snippet:

The conservative publisher Ken Whyte wrote a masterful and much-shared essay in the Globe and Mail last week, coolly debunking the conventional wisdom that speaking French provides an invaluable electoral edge to any would-be prime minister. What actually matters, Whyte noted, is whether the candidate is from Quebec.

The French-speaking province “isn’t attracted to bilingual leaders from outside Quebec,” he wrote — what Quebeckers want is a “favorite son.” Citing a half-century of precedent, Whyte identified two paths to winning Parliament: a Quebecker party leader who loses western Canada but wins Quebec and Ontario, or a non-Quebecker who loses Quebec but wins everywhere else.

“The record of Quebeckers in the west is at least as dismal as the record of non-Quebeckers in Quebec,” he concluded, so the two strategies are mutually exclusive.

Despite decades of good faith effort on the part of the Canadians and tremendous progress, it continues to be the case that Anglophones dominate Francophones in Canada economically, socially, and politically. However one tries to rationalize it, the median income of Anglophones remains higher than that of Francophones. That is true in every country in the world in which multiple languages are spoken—speaking a minority language means second class status. It is true in Switzerland. It is true in Sweden.

The main impediment to advancement of the “Quebeckers” is their insistence on conducting their business in French while the rest of the world is adopting English.

9 comments… add one
  • Dave, interested in your claim about Switzerland. Which is the majority language? Swiss-German? If so, I’d argue the French speakers in and around Geneva probably do at least as well economically. Maybe the smaller groups speaking Italian and Romansh do worse. Do you have a link to any data?

    South Africa would also be an interesting study. English is effectively the common language but I suspect Afrikaans speakers are doing just as well economically as the “English” (whites who are native English speakers.)

  • The four languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansch. There is little doubt that German speakers dominate—they comprise 60% of the population. Schwyzertutsch is spoken in the country but most Swiss German speakers can speak Hochdeutsch.

    People in Zurich earn about 10% more than people in Geneva but I don’t think that’s a good gauge. That’s like saying that people in New York earn more than people in Chicago. It’s true but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

    If you’re looking for data on Switzerland, your best bet is looking by canton. Swiss identity is more by canton.

    I don’t know enough about South Africa to comment.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    Agree on Quebecker insularity being a big part of their problem both culturally and economically. Quebec has also experienced several periods of strong man rule and one party states, which makes sense considering its background as a centralized French royal colony run from Paris. If Quebec had been a ‘frontier’ province of Canada, like BC or the Maritimes, it might have ended up independent.

    Belgium is another good example of one nation, two cultures, religions, and languages barely getting along. The Walloons don’t like the Flemish and the dislike is returned, often with interest. A desire not to be ruled by Paris or Amsterdam is the reason behind Belgium’s existence.

    Britain has a similar problem but less so because the Scots speak English and share more culture with the English more than they care to admit. The push for Scoxit is more about political power and economics than cultural disaffinity. As the North Sea oilfields continue to dry up I expect the Scottish independence movement to lose traction.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    It would be interesting to see the economic stats for Finland, native Finnish speakers versus Swedish speakers, the latter of which is about 5%. Finns and Finn-Swedes have had relatively amicable relationships with in the past, although there is some testiness. This may in part due to Finland not having been the product of a revolt against the mother country (Sweden), having been conquered by Russia in the early 19th century.

  • The point I was trying to make is dominance rather than whether they like one another. It’s not merely whether the Flemish and Walloons like one another but who runs the show.

    My larger point is that, if you want equality, you want one culture and, if you like multiple cultures sharing the same country, you necessarily must like inequality, too. That is what the French decided following their Revolution. To implement equality they have relied on the notion of “Frenchness”, of which the French language is a major if not THE major component.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Sacred diversity and Sacred equality at odds?

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Going against the grain.

    Currently, Quebec has the strongest economy in all the regions of Canada. It also has the healthiest government budget, with a surplus.

    Also, not everything can be measured in terms of money. Quebecers are attached to French even if it costs money because French is what defines them. Quebec is no longer Catholic, without French there is nothing to distinguish Quebec vs English Canada (or more provocatively, Canada vs US).

  • That’s misleading. Quebec is “booming” because its per capita GDP was so low compared to the Anglophone provinces and is rising now.

  • steve Link

    We vacation in Canada just about every year. Most of the people we meet there arent interested ion talking about the bilingual divide, even the people in Quebec arent usually that interested, except for the radicals. They won’t talk about anything else.


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