For good and bad reasons, the Winter Olympics have been making the news over the past few weeks. One story that went relatively unnoticed is important for the language industry. Newspapers reported that many Canadians were disgruntled at what they saw as the insufficient amount of French being used at the Games.
Canada is officially bilingual, thanks to the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982. However, the level of personal bilingualism varies from one area to another. In Quebec, nearly 95% of the population can speak French, while only 40% can speak English. Outside of Quebec, on the other hand, 97% of the population can speak English, while only 7% can speak French.
Although the official bilingualism of the country as a whole is generally respected, the various provinces have adopted their own policies. Quebec favours French, with signs in supermarkets, for instance, using large text for French and small text for English. Elsewhere, English is the de facto language for business and government.
Language is therefore a contentious subject in Canada, and the dispute over language at the Olympics was, in this sense, unsurprising.
Concerns were raised after the opening ceremony. Heritage Minister James Moore was disappointed: “there wasn’t as much French as we were expecting, as we were told that there was going to be.” he told reporters. The Provincial of Quebec, Jean Charest, was also critical.
These individuals are concerned with protecting the French language, which they see as central to their identity as citizens of Canada. However, this disagreement is different to the one that occurred when a student in Quebec was thrown off a bus for asking the driver what the time was in English. On that occasion, the exchange was part of everyday life. The Winter Olympics, on the other hand, are an international event; the opening ceremony was watched not only by Canadians but by millions of people around the world.
So should the speeches be made in both languages? Canada is surely right to try to preserve its bilingual character, but the use of English as a language of communication might in this instance take precedent. A distinction could perhaps be made between national and international events.
Having said that, Canadian officials and politicians have every right to speak in French. If they choose to do so, they need simply to contact a top language agency, who can supply them with professional interpreters or provide subtitle translations for their speeches and television appearances.