The linguist Steve Kaufman provides the low-down on a couple of recent skirmishes in the language wars of Canada. He writes:

In Canada, French-English language hostility is something we have just become used to in our country. The most recent nonsense concerns two unrelated issues. On the one hand a francophone passenger on Air Canada was awarded $12,000 because he was unable to order a soft drink in French on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Atlanta. (He asked for half a million dollars.)

At about the same time, we have another controversy, as the province of Quebec put up a website with information about government health services in French only, promising that an English translation would be available in months. (Note that Quebec is 80% francophone).

My view is that a lot of people are being very silly. The French rights campaigner who won $12,000 is being silly. I have seen him interviewed, and he is fluent in English.

Air Canada, as the national carrier, is just stupid for not being able to provide services in both official languages.

Above all, it is appalling to me that in Canada, where English speaking school kids study French for ten years or so at school, people expect to be hired as flight attendants by the national airline, if they cannot communicate in French.

Okay, my American bias is admittedly showing up because I find these controversies irrational. While I applaud Canada for embracing a bilingual culture, there are laws mandating official bilingualism that frequently seem to go way too far and impose too heavy a burden on private industry.

At the same time, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the whole dimension to language politics to which Americans are generally oblivious, and to note that in many countries throughout the world the issues of language are teeming with all the political poignancy of such hot button American issues as flag burning and bilingual education policy. It wasn’t all that long ago that Governor Michael Dukakis lost credibility as the Democratic nominee for President of the U.S. after George H.W. Bush ridiculed him for his position on whether teachers should be mandated to teach the pledge of allegiance in the classroom. Talk about silliness.

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