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The Importance of Language

Remarks by the Honourable David Kilgour, P.C., M.P. Edmonton Southeast
Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa)
Southern Alberta Heritage Language Association
Calgary, October 9, 1999

I am delighted to be with you today to address the issue of Multilingualism for the New Millennium: the Economic and Social Benefits of Languages Education.

Language is obviously a vital tool. Not only is it a means of communicating thoughts and ideas, but it forges friendships, cultural ties, and economic relationships.

Throughout history, many have reflected on the importance of language. For instance, the scholar Benjamin Whorf has noted that language shapes thoughts and emotions, determining one’s perception of reality. John Stuart Mill said that "Language is the light of the mind." Lionel Groulx, a Quebec historian, put it this way: "Chacun retient toutefois que la suprême révélation du génie national, la clef magique qui donne accès aux plus hautes richesses de la culture, c’est la langue."

For the linguist Edward Sapir, language is not only a vehicle for the expression of thoughts, perceptions, sentiments, and values characteristic of a community; it also represents a fundamental expression of social identity. Sapir said: "the mere fact of a common speech serves as a peculiar potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the language." In short, language retention helps maintain feelings of cultural kinship.

Here in Canada, we are blessed with two official languages flourishing in a multicultural and "forgiving society" as our new Governor General put it this week. Not only do we all have the opportunity to learn about other cultures; we instill the values of tolerance and respect in our children. The Austrian ambassador to Canada, Walther Lichem, speaks about the unique "plural identity capacity" of Canadians compared to most peoples who cannot be other than the culture they were born in.

Since the adoption of official bilingualism, we have been better able to provide to the younger generations the tools and knowledge for them to excel not only here at home, but beyond our national borders. This has allowed them to reach for the dreams and succeed in areas they may not have otherwise. For example, three of my four children have studied, or are studying, Spanish, which comes more easily after learning French. (I wish it worked so well for me.)

Language, of course, is knowledge, and in our world today knowledge is one of the key factors in competitiveness. Brains and knowledge are what create the prosperity and growth we tend to take for granted. In an advanced industrial society in an increasingly interdependent world, the knowledge of other languages becomes indispensable. Just think of how the advent of the Internet has changed our lives. For the last few years, millions of people across the world, who share common interests, are able to communicate with each other and exchange ideas. Not only are they able to do this due to the various technological advances, but also because they share a common language.

There is, of course, no denying that the knowledge of the English language is one of the most important tools available to our children. It is one of the international languages, a tool of communication between countries, cultural groups, various companies and organizations, communities and friends.

English is but one of our official languages; the other being French. As you are undoubtedly aware, we are in the midst of celebrating the Year of la Francophonie. This year-long event is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the French culture in our country. Whether it be the Acadians, Québécois or the Franco-Albertan community, various Franco-cultural groups across our country enrich our lives through their cultures and traditions.

Although much is said about the importance of the English language, one cannot overlook the important economic and diplomatic relationships that our country has forged with other French-speaking countries. The recent Sommet de la Francophonie in Moncton, New Brunswick, reflects the importance of this language.

On a personal note, I have been learning Spanish to aid in the various meetings I attend as part of my duties as Secretary of State for Latin America. I have been studying the language for just over two years and by now must have had a lot of lessons. My teacher has been promising for about two years that after just one more lesson I will be fluent.

Seriously, there are rapidly growing trade links in the Americas, and learning Spanish or Portuguese is an important tool for business people and officials seeking to build on those ties. As we move toward hemispheric economic integration, the knowledge of other languages of the hemisphere is becoming a highly marketable skill.

We Canadians, have given our children tools to succeed in a growing world economy. With French, Spanish and English, three international languages, being taught in schools across the country, we are giving the next generation skills needed to compete in the international market. But should we stop at those languages?

The knowledge of languages is an advantage that many first-generation Canadians hold. One can argue that it permits them to have a broader outlook on their surroundings, as they are able to look at issues with a broader perspective.

This openness of Canadians towards linguistic duality should not be surprising to those who have read the Annual Report 1998 by the Commissioner of Official Languages. The report points to a survey, conducted in 1998 by the Angus Reid Group on behalf of Canadian Heritage in the majority English-speaking provinces and territories. It showed that "the concept of linguistic duality has the support of a majority of Canadians. Of those questioned, 77% believed that it is important for students to learn to speak English and French in school. Moreover, 61% of respondents believed that having two official languages counts for a great deal in the definition of a ‘Canadian,’ and 67% felt that the ability to speak English and French improves job and business prospects for all Canadians."

The potential for Canadians to learn more about other cultures and languages is, of course, enhanced by the fact we are a multicultural nation. Canada’s identity has often been characterized as a multicultural mosaic. Immigrants to this country bring a vast wealth of knowledge – not the least of which is their knowledge of other international languages. It is very important that this pool of linguistic knowledge not be lost by the second- and third-generation of former newcomers. Subsequent generations will only want to learn the language of their parents if parents take pride in their cultures and understand that language is an international passport.

As we approach the new millennium, permit me to refer to one of our great leader’s outlook on this nation’s future. Wilfrid Laurier’s metaphor of Canada at the turn of the century was that of marble, oak and granite :

"It is the image of the nation I would like to see Canada become. For here I want the marble to remain the marble; the granite to remain the granite; the oak to remain the oak, and out of these elements I would build a nation great among the nations of the world."

These inspiring words are still ones to live by. As we enter a new century and millennium, we must all inspire to continue to make this country strong and competitive, by nurturing and providing to the younger generations, the tools to succeed, helping to make Canada the continuing envy of the world.

Thank you. Merci. Muchas gracias.

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