Language & Political Identity

Written on November 9, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, International Relations


It is mere happenstance that I was born and raised in the city of Montreal and incidentally became bilingual
in the two languages of the city, English and French. I was thus very
interested by the recent post by Rafael Puyol, whose observations struck a chord. Moreover, they coincide neatly with this week’s front page story from the US edition of the Wall Street Journal and the resulting reaction and commentary.

Quebec2As it happens, Montreal is one of very few cities in the world that has an integrated bilingual culture, by which I mean the people who live there can generally function comfortably in both main languages. The only other such metropoles that I can think of (there may be others that elude me) that share this characteristic are Barcelona (Catalan and Castilian) and Cape Town (Aafrikans, English and, perhaps, Xhosa). There are other cities, of course, where several languages are spoken such as Brussels (French/Flemish) or Ottawa (English/French) or even Miami (English/Spanish). In these latter cases, however, the co-existence of two language groups does not equate to the integrated bilingualism of a city like Barcelona or Capetown. In such places, either the two linguistic groups remain largely separate, even hostile, or else a dominant linguistic group does not share or even sympathise with the bilingualism of the minority.

Such bilingualism is very rare because we tend to separate by tongue more than anything else. It is very interesting to note, by way of example, that in insanely polyglot Switzerland there is only one city of any size where both German and French are spoken with similar ease by the population: Biel/Bienne, which happens to lie on the Franco-German boundary and thus draws its population in roughly equal measure from both language communities. Even there, language apparently remains a divisive issue.

Another kind of historical accident applies to both Montreal and Barcelona. In both cities, the dominant local languages (French and Catalan) are subordinate in a national context (English and Spanish). And in both instances, the subordinate status of the language nationally (as measured simply by the number of speakers) means that regionally language has become the principal means of expressing political & ethnic identity. In Quebec, the legislative initiatives that have been introduced over the last 30 years to assert political identity are referred to in English simply as "the language laws." The initiatives that have been introduced into the regions of Spain are all too familiar in this context. These are often absurdly trivial. "The most ludicrous law is about the size of letters that you can use on posters. In Quebec, English must be one third the size of letters used in French. And the colour … must be also more prominent in French," noted a McGill University Professor on a program broadcast some years ago on the BBC. C’est vrai, hélas. It’s true, alas.

But they can be more important things as well. The debate in Spain’s linguistic regions over access to education for immigrants, for example, is well-familiar to Quebec residents, who long ago lost their right to educate their children in the language of their choice. A host of ambitions that redound to a discrete political identity are all implied under the rubric of language. As in Catalonia and the Basque Lands, language is thus a well-understood shibboleth for ethnic identity. In Quebec, for example, it was recently proposed that newcomers to the province, even if they held a Canadian passport, be excluded from the political process unless they could demonstrate competency in French (further details in English and in French). That proposal was rejected, but it shows how language can easily be transmuted into insidious political expression. The explicit identity of language is manipulated to assert an implicit ethnic identity that transcends language. If as a well-intentioned guiri I were to move to Girona and learn Catalan, would that make me a Catalonian? If by superhuman effort I manage to learn Basque would that make me Vasco? I don’t claim to know the answer in the Spanish context, but enforced linguistic assimilation begs the larger question of political self-identification, self-expression and self-determination. Linguistic minorities that seek a form of self-determination and self-expression through the promotion of language are too often simply trying to circusmcribe their community along ethnic and historical lines.

Language insecurity is a robust platform for promoting wider political ambitions. Once this discourse becomes embedded within the political culture, it is very difficult to overcome since it creates a political class whose electoral ambitions rely entirely upon the preservation of a non-progressing dialectic. The resulting straw men of the political debates are all too familiar: the great wrongs of history, the indifference of a dominant linguistic community, the interference of a disconnected central government, the urgent need for greater autonomy, the importance of preserving culture, the very meaning of words like "nation" and "federation." Following the debate over the Estatut d’Autonomia was like watching Quebec politics in syndication.

But there’s a curious by-product in all this, in Montreal at least. Singularity breeds smugness. Montrealers generally feel their city represents something unique – certainly in North America and possibly further afield. Its 3 million inhabitants are not only mostly bilingual, but further believe they are bicultural. This has produced a home-grown brand of self-satisfaction. Many Montrealers, when called upon to declaim the merits of living here, will hug themselves tightly as they expostulate on the virtues of living in two languages and two cultures. Having been driven by legislation to learn French, many non-francophones now feel they have a certain panache, a je-ne-sais-quoi, a petite quelque-chose that makes us, dare we say, slightly better than our unilingual confreres in Toronto or Boston.

True, for most people this bicultural glory rarely extends to more than ordering a meal in French or taking in the occasional English film in V.O., since the city is still largely divided along narrow linguistic lines. But it is a powerful myth nonetheless. The result is that the largely bilingual minority is much less troubled by the arm-waving nationalism that emanates from our politics, which still seeks to rouse up political support by scaremongering over language and culture.

And why not? Who needs this fight? The real victims, here as in Spain, are those future generations who risk becoming less and less fluent in the dominant language around them. This I think is core: a Quebecker needs English more than a Torontonian needs French. While in theory young francophone Quebeckers are not forced into this choice, in practice the mandatory requirement of French-language education means it is becoming increasingly the case. I thus agree fundamentally with Rafael’s point: it would be highly unfortunate if this were also to permeate the language regions of Spain.

It is important to note, finally, that Canada has benefited culturally from the emergence of a Quebec politics grounded in language. Our leading federal politicians are almost all bilingual, as are many government services. Canada’s embrace of multiculturalism can be traced to the presence of a large francophone minority. After all, if the country can accommodate one separate language and culture within its boundaries, why not a host of different cultures and traditions? There is of course, one exception. While Canada is an officially bilingual country, there is one province which, by government decree, is unilingual: Quebec. Vive la différence!!


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