Canada has two official languages; French and English. In Canada, laws recognizing the Official Languages “give English and French a special legal status over other languages in Canada’s courts, Parliament, and other federal institutions.” In order to immigrate to Canada, proficiency in one of the official languages is one of the primary criteria. The Canadian Government’s immigration website says:
“Your proficiency in English or French is one of the six selection factors for skilled workers.”
These policies have similarities to the objective that American proponents of the English Language Unity Act of 2011 hope to accomplish with English alone.
Like the U.S., Canada’s ethnic and linguistic diversity is increasing. As of the 2001 Canadian Census, 18% of their population has a native language other than English or French. Canadian citizens have the right to communicate with the government in either English or French, but they must learn one of them. Their official language policy may offer support why, as of 2006, only 2% of the Canadian population did not speak English or French.
The U.S., with no official English policy, has a similar percentage of people with a native language other than English (20%) as Canada, but a much higher percentage of people that do not speak the de facto national language (8%). The Canadian government believes having 2 equal Official Languages has been beneficial both for their society and for their economy.
It can certainly be argued that having official language legislation and requirements in Canada has led immigrant groups to be more proactive in learning one of the national languages of the country, which has in turn enabled more of them to escape linguistic isolation and learn the skills necessary for economic advancement.
The detractors of Canada’s official language policy claim that it protects minority populations that speak either English or French, but discriminates against all other ethnic linguistic minorities. They believe a multicultural policy would be more egalitarian than a bicultural policy. If the goals of the original bilingual policy, equality and unity, are to be realized then the laws need to be widened to include greater collective rights for ethnic minorities (even if their languages are not to be officially recognized).
Other countries’ official language policies can give us insight on the processes of structuring a new policy here in the U.S. In Canada, their official languages are recognized in their constitution. Official English proponents in the U.S. have tried go the constitutional amendment route as well, but given that they cannot get the votes to pass it as regular legislation, this has also failed.
Another lesson we can learn by looking at other countries is that there is a plethora of different policy process options for dealing with this issue that can lead to different outcomes..
1. The U.S. can remain without an official language and be content with a de facto national language (like the U.K. and Australia)
2. The U.S. can establish English as the only national language via the English Language Unity Act or other legislation (like Guyana or Jamaica).
3. The U.S. can equally recognize two official languages for government business; English and Spanish (with a similar set up to Canada).
4. The U.S. can also decide to recognize several different languages (South Africa has 11 official languages).