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Students get french words off the board in the Grade 2 class of Natalie Ruel at Mother Teresa elementary school in Calgary, Alberta, June 21, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol)
Students get french words off the board in the Grade 2 class of Natalie Ruel at Mother Teresa elementary school in Calgary, Alberta, June 21, 2012. (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol)

Identity

Is bilingualism still relevant in Canada? Add to ...

Balwant Sanghera is 100-per-cent committed to bilingualism, and supports English and French instruction in schools. He just wishes those weren’t the only options for second-language courses.

“Here in Surrey and Abbotsford, Punjabi has overtaken French as the most spoken language,” said Mr. Sanghera, president of the Punjabi Language Education Association. “It’s the language you’ll hear most often in shops and businesses and at home.”

His B.C.-based group wants to see official federal recognition of Punjabi, and says the official two-language policy is out of touch with the reality of changing national demographics. The group has been lobbying for the past 20 years, and now B.C. schools and universities have introduced Punjabi, while many hospitals, airports, markets and banks display signs in the language.

“It’s not just about keeping the language alive for the immigrant community, although, yes, that is a motivation for many parents,” Mr. Sanghera said. “I don’t think it will create ethnic enclaves. In Canada, we celebrate multiculturalism officially. I think that should also expand to include support for multilingualism officially. It shouldn’t be just extra classes or private schools.”

But if Canada were to introduce official languages based on immigrant patterns, the situation would be in flux with every passing generation, said Graham Fraser, Canada’s commissioner for official languages. “If you look at the immigration patterns of this country, by and large immigrant languages do not survive the third generation,” he said.

In 1951, for example, 450,000 Canadians spoke Ukrainian at home, Mr. Fraser said, and bureaucrats toyed with the idea of recognizing Ukrainian as an official language in Western Canada. The problem was that in 1981, that 450,000 had become 45,000, he said.

“The third-generation immigrant tends to use English and French as their dominant language, and yet you’re not seeing that diminution on the part of the French-speaking community in Canada,” Mr. Fraser said. “There are more French speakers in Canada now than there ever have been.”

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