Sunday, August 24, 2014

Canuck cabinet ministers not really up for official bilingualism

A person who speaks many languages is multilingual.
A person who speaks two languages is bilingual.
A person who speaks only one language is... English!

That joke has been around for centuries. Of more recent vintage is the one about the southern Baptist preacher whose argument for having English as the only official language of the USA was "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

You hear a lot of such talk in Armerica, as the use of Spanish in day-to-day life spreads north and east, buoyed on the wave of immigrants (legal and otherwise) from south of the border. Those who insist that the USA should have only one official language -- English -- point to Canada as an example of the confusion and cost of bilingualism.

For those who don't know [most Americans. Ed.], Canada has two official languages -- English and French. Notice that I didn't say "national languages". That's because the word "national", common to both English and French, has slightly different meanings. The French "national" refers to ethnicity -- Frenchness -- and is thus a heavily loaded word in the multicultural mess that Canada has become.

But never mind. Bilingualism has been a principal policy of the Canadian government for half a century, and has given a certain style to all communication, written and oral, by public bodies and officials. The style is sometimes called "AirCanada-speak", from the days when AirCan was the national -- oops, can't say that -- the state-owned airline. Here's an example. "Veuillez boucler vos ceintures de sécurité, please fasten your seatbelts." -- all said in one breath. Which language would be spoken first depends on whether the closest city is in a French-speaking or English-speaking area. Really.

But that's the law in Canada! And there's even a Commissioner of Official Languages/Commissaire aux langues officielles to make sure that all public pronouncements are made in both languages. Not kidding. Check out his website.

Uttering platitudes in English and French simultaneously is no biggie for Canuck Prime Minister Steve Harpoon, whose dogged determination to learn the language on the other side of the corn flakes box has served him well. But some of his top cabinet minister apparently flunked high school French and can't be arsed to take remedial lessons.

Walt refers to "Johnboy" Baird and "Skinny Tony" Clement, who preside over the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Treasury Board respectively. Messrs Baird and Clement love to demonstrate their coolness and connectedness by Twittering and tweeting about this, that and the other. [Especially "the other", in the case of "Nancy" Baird. Ed.] But they do so mostly in English, since that's the only language in which they are more-or-less fluent. Too bad for them, because the language police are on their case!

Jason Fekete, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, tells us that the Commissioner of Official Languages is trying to determine whether cabinet ministers, on their personal Twitter accounts, have responsibilities under Canada’s language laws when tweeting on government business or posting information for their departments. "The outcome of the investigation, could put a chill on federal ministers’ use of social media and erode the spontaneity of communicating directly, in real time, with the public."

What do the ministers concerned have to say? One of the most government's most prolific tweetie-pies, Michelle Rempel, the Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, told the Citizen, "My dept. is fully compliant (tweets in both languages) – as it should be. Press releases are the same. While my French is coming along nicely, and I have a great desire to be fully proficient in it, English is still my primary language and as such tweets from my personal account reflect the same."

Mr. Clement went a little farther, tweeting, "I think it’s a ridiculous waste of time. I sometimes tweet in French, much in English. If he [the Commissioner] proposes to overlord me [sic], I will quit Twitter." Dare we hope!

Walt's advice to all of them: If you can't write coherently in proper English, don't write at all. As Mark Twain said, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

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