Review of Graham Fraser’s “Sorry, I don’t speak French”

Dear friends, sorry for the long delay between posts. Between the convention last week and the 5 days of seminars in 3 cities I did this week I was a cooked noodle by the weekend. I’m back on the horse though, and even polished off “Sorry, I don’t Speak French” on the flight to Vegas. I’ve written up a little review for those who were thinking about picking it up…

I stumbled upon this book by luck. Sam M. recommended I check it out after posting my CBC piece on the Dominion Institute blog. Serendipitously, a month later the Millennium Scholarship foundation gave me a copy as a thank you gift for a talk I gave at a “Think Again” conference.

It’s a brave soul who wades into Canada’s language politics but Graham Fraser has clearly impressed given that soon after the publication of this book he took on the role of Commissioner of Official Languages. In reading this book I take comfort in knowing we have a Commissioner well educated on the subject. Graham’s book provides us with a basic review of Canada’s language policy – essentially beginning 50 years ago with the launch of a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and weaving its way to the present day, analyzing the impact and effect of the commission’s results along the way.

For me the book had deep personal resonance. If you are a French Immersion Alumnus (Frims, as we called ourselves at Churchill) or have lived in either Ottawa or Montreal, I suspect it will for you as well. Upon reading the book the larger political and policy forces that drove both my education and experiences living in these places came into focus. Graham’s honest recounting of the tensions and problems inherent in Canada’s bilingualism policies often confirm what we likely suspected and/or already knew – his book compelling not because of its novelty, but because it gives those thoughts context and structure.

The book also made me realize I share a common experience with some 347,000 other Canadians. Canadians who were also educated in French Immersion but are often too embarrassed to speak it because they feel their French is inadequate (something I’ve begun to overcome) and/or who went on to learn a third language. Indeed, the only part of his discussion of immersion experience that didn’t ring true to me was his description of French Immersion as an Anglo education and culture, translated into French. I remember reading L’Etranger by Camus and other “French” books (not French translations of English books as he asserts). I also distinctly remember the strong Quebecois nationalists’ slant of my Grade 10 history text – a perspective that was almost disorienting when read from a classroom in Vancouver.

The books strongest and weakest moment is reserved for its analysis of present day language policy. Graham’s thesis appears to be that bilingualism has been, more or less, a success. Its detractors, and Canadians more generally, have simply misunderstood its intended goal. Bilingualism, according to Graham, was never about getting every Canadian to learn the other official language but to enable the public service, and the government services they provide, to function in both official languages. In this regard the chapter on the impact of bilingualism on the public service is excellent while the chapter on bilingualism in politics – which essential discusses how bilingualism is a prerequisite for political leadership – is somewhat wanting. Indeed, throughout the book you are left wanting for more. It almost felt like Graham constantly leads you up to the finish line, but then chooses to end the chapter, failing to provide you with the analytical conclusion you thought he was going to provide. My real fear is that he is much more pessimistic then he lets on and didn’t have the heart to plunge the dagger too deeply into policies and a subject matter he clearly feels passionate about.

If you are a Frimm, a public servant, or someone concerned with either language politics or national unity – this is definitely a book for you. It’s an easy, enjoyable to read and, if you’re like me, humbling. Given how much of our collective energy language seems to have occupied over the past two decades I remain struck by how little I knew (and still know) about Canadian language policy. It’s a great primer, and if you’ve got the time, worth reading.

[tags]book review, bilingualism, public policy, canadian politics, graham fraser[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Review of Graham Fraser’s “Sorry, I don’t speak French”

  1. Graham Fraser

    Dear David Eaves —
    I just came across your kind review of Sorry I Don’t Speak French from last fall. You left me tantalized when you suggested I had not pursued the policy implications sufficiently — and, while this is probably true, I would be intrigued to know how you think the policy implications should be developed. As you might imagine, I continue to be deeply interested in the subject.
    Graham Fraser
    PS: I found your elegy to Jim Wright very moving. I had only recently met him –= ironically, at a shiva for a mutual friend’s mother.

    Reply
  2. Graham Fraser

    Dear David Eaves — I just came across your kind review of Sorry I Don’t Speak French from last fall. You left me tantalized when you suggested I had not pursued the policy implications sufficiently — and, while this is probably true, I would be intrigued to know how you think the policy implications should be developed. As you might imagine, I continue to be deeply interested in the subject. Graham Fraser PS: I found your elegy to Jim Wright very moving. I had only recently met him –= ironically, at a shiva for a mutual friend’s mother.

    Reply

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