I wrote the article below nearly thirty years ago. It was originally published in September of 1974 in Option Magazine and was reprinted elsewhere as well. Forced ‘official’ Canada-wide bilingualism was the hot topic of the day and there was a lot of hostility on both sides of the issue.
I have made some minor stylistic changes to the text of the version presented here.
The right of every person to speak the language of his choice cannot be disputed. It is a choice that concerns only the person in question and his family, if the chosen language is used at home. It is not a choice that will in any way harm anyone else. It is not a choice which threatens another culture or way of life; it is strictly a personal matter.
The right of every person to speak the language of his choice cannot be interpreted as the right to force others to speak and understand that language. If you speak a language that isn't understood where you work or shop, it is not up to others to learn a new language to accommodate you. That would be an abrogation of their right to speak the language of their choice.
Bilingualism seldom poses any problem where one language is much more widely used than the other. Typically, the people in the minority simply acquire a rudimentary knowledge of the majority language and continue to use their native language in dealings with their families and others of the same ethnic background. Where sufficient demand exists, small shops, delicatessens and various services spring up to serve the requirements of the minority group in their native language.
Where two distinct language populations are similar, there is more potential for problems. If the two groups tend to live in distinct areas with others of the same ethnic and language background, there will sometimes be goods or services available in one area that will be unavailable in the other. If someone wishes to make a purchase or ask questions in other than the area where his native language is spoken, he could have trouble communicating his needs.
Any store owner or service provider, interested in enlarging his clientele, will make every effort to have personnel on hand to communicate with potential customers using a different language. If he feels that he has a captive market without making any change, he may postpone any such accommodations as long as possible. That is his right. Any action taken by government to force multilingualism will only aggravate the problem and arouse hostilities.
A much simpler solution would be one of economic pressure. While no-one has any moral right to force anyone else to learn a new language in order to understand his or her shoe size, it is perfectly within any potential customer’s rights not to deal at a given store, or even to start another store in competition. When a business is threatened with a loss of profit, the owners might suddenly become more eager to be accommodating.
There is, let us say, a large store in a fairly heavily populated urban area. The owner of the store speaks French, as do all his employees. The area is increasingly settled by refugees from British Columbia who are trying to get away before the latest socialist premier there nationalizes their homes and cars. The store has one hundred French-speaking employees and there are fifty thousand displaced English-speaking B. C.'ers in the city, with more arriving daily.
There are several possibilities:
1. Everyone could refuse to learn the other’s language. This would be short-sighted and counterproductive. The storeowner might not have as many customers. Those English-speaking refugees who will shop there might not spend as much money as they might if they were able to ask specifically for what they need. They don’t really want to have to ask for a loaf of bread in French. To them, the storeowner is a "pain" in the derriere because he won’t do anything to make the shoppers feel appreciated as customers.
2. The fifty thousand refugee townspeople could take Berlitz courses in French.
3. The storeowner could voluntarily arrange for his employees to receive instruction in English, at company expense, and on company time; or he could hire some of the English-speaking townspeople to work in his store; or he could do both.
4. The government could move in with tanks and machine guns, commanding one side or the other to capitulate. The offended parties, of course, would harbour an abiding hatred as a result and pass the grudge on to their children and grandchildren.
5. The English-speaking townspeople could make a few discreet phone calls, long distance, and make one or two secretive trips out of town. Then one day a delegation of townspeople might seek an audience with the store owner and, through the aid of an interpreter, present the man with this startling news: Walmart has consented to build a large store on the vacant lot just down the street. They've also consented to staff it exclusively with English-speaking salesclerks!
There would be much shuffling of feet, hand-wringing, hemming and hawing. The store owner might suddenly remember that he studied English in high school. Some of the English-speaking refugees from B.C. might remember that Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau had rather endearing accents and that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little French.
A solution is near at hand.
The English-speaking townspeople, of course, could simply let Eaton's proceed with its plans and let the French storeowner discover the news when the first bulldozer started breaking ground. He had his chance.
The moral of the story is that there is a free market solution for everything or perhaps that a little blackmail goes a long way.
Sieg Pedde, a London, Ontario businessman was the first leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada.
My Comments: February 24, 2004
I stand by what I wrote nearly thirty years ago. The reality in Canada is that forced bilingualism doesn’t work. Students in most of English-speaking Canada, forced to study French, often against their will, hate it. Parents would, on average, prefer that the children study just about anything else, perhaps subjects more ‘useful’ in the real world.
My son attends a French Immersion school, so I obviously have no objection to the study of French. I do have objection to being forced to study French. That is the real issue -- force. I send my son to German School on Saturdays. No-one is forcing me to do that. He attends there because I want him to learn about and understand his German heritage from my side of the family.
For an interesting commentary on Canada’s forced bilingualism, please click here.