A reader wrote a letter to one of the local daily newspapers recently complaining about “Italian or Spanish-speaking men speaking their native language loudly” at a shopping mall.
The letter writer, who was irritated by their behaviour, asked them if they were Canadian citizens, to which they said yes. “…being a Canadian citizen means speaking English or French; Canada is a bilingual only,” he told them.
The men continued speaking in their language which infuriated the letter writer who yelled at them” You want to speak your language, go back to your country. You are obviously immigrants that don’t remember why you came to Canada; to start a new life, you two did.”
This is a typical behaviour. When you don’t know what to say, the first thing that comes to ones’ mind is,” Go back to your country.” The speaker doesn’t realize that this – Canada – is their country now. No use telling them to go back because they are here legally and are entitled to all the rights and obligations of a citizen.
Our patriotic letter writer was right to some extent that when in public, one should be considerate of those around us who do not understand the language you are speaking. This is just courtesy and etiquette. By the same token, there are times when one has to be tolerant of people using their language in public.
I have noticed elderly Chinese and Punjabi people conversing in their language, not because they want to be rude but because they do not know enough English to be able to converse in that language. Nothing to do with patriotism or civility.
There are also people, like me for example, who speak in my language to my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and other close relatives, all of whom speak fluent English. The simple reason for talking to them in my language is that since I was a child, I spoke to them in my language and speaking to them in English would be awkward. On the other end of the scale, I have friends whose spouses don’t speak my language and whenever we get together with them, we resort to speaking in English, even if he or she is the only person in the group who doesn’t understand our language.
Canada is an attractive and welcoming country for people to immigrate because of its tolerant society and multicultural policies. Canada is admired worldwide for that. We are admired because we are a nation built on diversity and multiculturalism.
In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. Canada affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation, ensuring that all citizens can retain their identities and ancestry.
Studies have shown that older immigrant group – Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, German – fully retain their mother tongues at rates far below newer arrivals to Canada. According to Statistics Canada, roughly one in five – nearly 6.6 million – reported speaking a language other than English or French at home. Of those, 4.7 million used that language “most often” at home; the remaining 1.9 million said they regularly used the other language as a second language in addition to either English or French.
“Imagine that immigration stops in Canada,” said Rene Houle, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada. “In a few generations, most of these languages will have disappeared from the country because they are not passed (down) from one generation to the next.”
The study showed that 22 immigrant mother tongues were reported by more than 100,000 people: Punjabi led the list, followed by Chinese languages (not including Cantonese and Mandarin), Spanish and Italian.
Language transmitted from immigrant mothers to their Canadian-born children has actually increased in recent decades, rising to 55 per cent in 2006 from 41 per cent in 1981, according to a report Houle penned for the agency.
However, transfer of language from the second generation onward remains a struggle for many, particularly among European communities for which the flow of new arrivals has all but dried up.
Houle study also reported that several factors, including birthplace, age and education, could influence whether parents will successfully pass their language on to their children. But the most important factor by far is who they’re paired up with, Houle said.
“The fact that you marry someone with a different mother tongue than your mother tongue diminishes drastically the probability that you will pass the language, whatever the language is,” he said.
It’s impossible for any family, no matter how well-intentioned or determined, to preserve a language in isolation, said Shana Poplack, director of the sociolinguistics laboratory at the University of Ottawa.
“It’s one thing to speak at home, to the parents or to the grandparents who presumably don’t speak any English or French… but you don’t get to maintain your language and have it be vigorous and so on if you can’t speak to anybody outside your house,” she said.
It takes a community to nurture a language in an environment where it otherwise serves no instrumental purpose, she said.
All I can say to end this debate is “au revoir” (so long) for now. Pardon me, but that’s the extent of my French!