Is Canada Really Bilingual

By some streak of good luck, my old Univega bicycle held up all the way from Boston, Mass to the south shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the Gaspesie region of Eastern Quebec. Unfortunately, my ability to communicate in French seemed to have remained unchanged, despite leaving the US with a rudimentary understanding of the language. This fact was made abundantly clear, when I entered a small grocery store in Mont St. Pierre and tried to buy a postcard. I thought I knew the French word for this popular item, but after several minutes of bad French and mediocre hand signals, I discovered that in Quebec, the correct order of words is “carte poste” and not “poste carte”. That little change in sequence made all the difference in the world.

The truth of the matter lies in the fact that since French is the minority language in a supposedly bilingual country, French speakers are much more likely to understand the dominant language than the other way around. Nowhere is this more evident than to those travelers, who venture off across the back roads of Quebec province, expecting to find a population that understands little English and therefore forcing the traveler into a situation, where he is compelled to use and improve his limited use of the French language.

What happens instead is that service personell, who are often hired for their bilingual abilities, quickly and easily switch over to English to complete the conversation and transaction. Over time the traveler becomes accustomed to dealing with bilingual persons and so he slips out of using the lesser-known language.

Take a look at the numbers. According to Karen Bond, of “Karen's Linguistic Issues”, 60 percent of Canadian citizens use English as a first language, while only 24 percent speak French as a mother tongue. Even more importantly is the percentage of these speakers, who are capable of speaking the other language. While one third of all French speakers can handle English, only 9 percent of Anglophones can effectively communicate in French. This is a slightly lopsided comparison of numbers, which suggests that Canada is really an English-speaking country with French frequently used as a second language.

Not surprisingly the vast majority of French speakers live in Quebec, where 82 percent use it as a first language. Only in New Brunswick, where about 1/3 of the population normally converses in French, are the numbers anywhere close to what they are in Quebec. Manitoba and Ontario house much smaller (about 5 %) French-speaking populations. No matter how you look at it, Quebec province is the center of French culture in Canada, even while many of its residents are quite adept to switching over to the developing lingua franca of English.

Bread & Apples
Credit: H. Nielsen