Welcome to the first episode of the second season of “Multilingual countries“. Our first journey in this second season will take us across the Atlantic Ocean, to the north. Today we’ll visit Canada to learn about the habits and languages of this fantastic region.
Canada owes its bilingual nature to all the events that have influenced its traditions and culture over the years. First it was a French colony, then an English one, until its independence in 1931.
Canada does not have an official language…it has two!
The law on the Official Languages establishes the use of two national languages: English and French. The relevant legislation calls for equal use of the two languages, from scholastic education to institutional communications, from signage to everyday language.
English is currently spoken as the first language by about 60% of the population, French by 24%. The remaining 16% have a different native language, including Italian, Scottish and Polish. The country also has some indigenous languages which were spoken in Canada before the European settlers arrived, for example Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway.
Most of the French-speaking population is concentrated in the province of Quebec, the largest and most populous province in the country. One example that easily shows the coexistence of these two languages in the region is the use of the famous “bonjour, hi”, a typical greeting of Québécois shopkeepers. A sort of fusion of the two languages in a single expression, emanating bilingualism and inclusion.
English and French have not always peacefully coexisted here. Over the years there have been numerous, more or less peaceful, struggles for the affirmation of one language or the other.
The use of the French language in the province of Québec is currently regulated by the Office québécois de la langue française, with the aim of safeguarding and encouraging its use.
Obligations and limitations in force in this province include the use of French as an official language of the government (with English alongside) and the obligation to mainly use French in advertising, in which English can also be used as long as it is in a text size half that of the French.
The pressure to speak French, and the considerable English influence, have led to the creation of real linguistic “case studies”. For example, the obligation to translate brand names has made the famous American fast food chain KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) become PFK (Poulet Frit du Kentucky).
The influence of English on the variety of French spoken in Canada can also be found in various expressions, quite different from the standard language spoken in France. It is therefore common to hear “bienvenue” instead of the more correct “je vous en prie” or “de rien” after a person says “thank you”, a clear legacy of the English language where the correct response is “you’re welcome”.
To learn more, I highly recommend the 25th episode of the podcast Fluidité to all those who speak or understand French. To those who love books, I instead recommend the novel “Barney’s Version” by Mordecai Richler, in which the Canadian language struggles are the backdrop to a truly compelling plot.
See you next episode!
English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider