I get asked this question all the time: Why aren’t you bilingual? I thought ALL Canadians spoke English and French!? [Someone who is ‘bilingual’ can speak and understand two languages.]
Canada is officially a bilingual country. Across the country, all government services are available in English or French. All our packaging, from clothing to cereal boxes, must be in English and French. Everyone has to learn French in school. Most people, however, can barely put a sentence together in French.
We’re missing one of the key factors needed to successfully learn a language: motivation. We don’t have to learn French. There are small communities across Canada that speak French, but the French-speaking people live mostly in one place: the province of Quebec. Most Canadians rarely talk to a French speaker or need to speak French. English is the main language across the country. People only need to learn French if they want to work for the Canadian government or to live in Quebec. It’s nice to learn a second language, but we don’t really need to.
Students who are very motivated can go to a ‘French immersion’ school, where every subject is taught in French. For most people, however, French is another boring subject they have to take to finish school. Most Canadians speak a dialect jokingly called “shampoo-bottle French” or “cereal-box French” because those are the only places they see French: on a shampoo bottle in the shower or on a cereal box at breakfast!
Canada has been a bilingual country since its founding. The country was colonized by both the English and the French (it’s a big country, so there’s lots of room for everyone!). The English began to outnumber the French, and eventually the French were defeated in a series of wars and the British took control of all of Canada. The French were allowed to keep their language and culture, however. It even says in our Constitution that English and French are the official languages of the Canadian Parliament and the courts. Later, the Official Languages Act declared French and English the official languages of the entire country.
I once read somewhere that the French spoken in Quebec is very close to the French spoken by the original French explorers and settlers. Over time, however, the French spoken in Quebec has been ‘anglicized,’ (it has become more English). To some French people in France, the French spoken in Canada is a lesser form of French. When I was studying French in Paris, my teacher said that a TV documentary about Quebec singer Celine Dion and her family had to be subtitled so people in France could understand what the Dion family was saying!
So no, the entire country is NOT bilingual! I studied French until my first year of university. That was a long time ago, and now I would say I am at an intermediate level. I can read and write French better than I can speak it, and listening is my weakest skill (does that sound familiar?).