How Many Ikes Has Bilingualism Cost Us?

In 1928, a 37-year-old American army major named Dwight Eisenhower was ordered to write an official history of the army in the First World War. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, sailed for France and settled into a luxurious Paris apartment.

Both Ike and Mamie started French lessons. Mamie wasn’t very motivated and she made little progress. But Major Eisenhower was an ambitious, energetic, and determined man. He would master the language.

In 1925, Eisenhower had attended the Command and General Staff School, an essential step to joining the army’s senior ranks. The CGSS was notoriously tough, having been designed not only to test the intelligence and judgment of officers but their ability to perform in the teeth of extreme stress and exhaustion. Eisenhower graduated first in a class of 245.

This was not a man who would fail to learn French.

Eisenhower was also blessed with a gift for words, particularly in writing, which was a key reason why he had been given the assignment in France and why the account of the Second World War he wrote 20 years later – entirely by himself – would be a mammoth bestseller.

Eisenhower was also lucky to be an irrepressibly gregarious man who enjoyed nothing more than talking with the locals as he travelled about the French countryside. “Whenever possible, I stopped along the road to join groups of road workers who were eating their noonday lunch. They were invariably relaxed and hospitable,” he recalled. “Whenever I could find no group along the road, I would save my lunch, look for a little auberge, and eat there to mingle with the people.”

With all these advantages, there was no way Eisenhower would fail to learn French.

And yet, he did. At least in part. “Major, you are one of the best readers of French and translators of the written language that I have among my students,” Eisenhower’s French teacher told him, “but you are the worst candidate as a French linguist I have ever tried to teach.”

Eisenhower’s spoken French just wouldn’t improve. No matter how hard he tried. No matter how much be practised. He just couldn’t do it.

“Ike persevered for a year, but his effort to speak French proved hopeless,” wrote Jean Edward Smith in his wonderful new biography Eisenhower in War and Peace.

For Americans, this is a footnote in the story of a magnificent general and president. But for Canadians, it’s something more.

If the young Major Eisenhower had been Canadian, today, his career in the military would have been severely hampered by his inability to speak French and he could forget about taking a top post. The same would be true elsewhere in the federal government. His career would eventually stall.

So how many Dwight Eisenhowers has bilingualism cost us?

Of course we can’t know what the number is. But we can be sure it’s not zero. Because what happened to Eisenhower is fairly common among adults learning a second language, even adults as accomplished as Dwight Eisenhower.

Linguists call it “fossilization.” Instead of proficiency steadily increasing as time and effort are put into learning the language, it plateaus. No matter how determined the student is, no matter how hard they work, their skill does not improve.

Why this happens has been a field of study since the 1970s. It’s still debated. But it’s clear that it happens a lot.

It’s also common for students to advance normally in one or more domains while stalling in others, as Eisenhower did when his reading and writing skills advanced rapidly while his spoken French stagnated. This is known as “persistent selective fossilization.”

People who have mastered a second language, or more, often do not understand what the problem is. Study harder, they say. Don’t be lazy. This is not helpful. It’s like telling a person suffering from depression to stop sulking and cheer up.

Of course it’s true that some senior jobs in this country simply can’t be done by someone who isn’t proficient in all dimensions of both official languages.

If we lose the occasional Eisenhower as a result, that’s just the price we pay for the country being what it is.

But it should be obvious that an unbending insistence on full bilingualism should be kept to an absolute minimum. Anything more will cost more than it’s worth. It should also be obvious that “fossilization” is effectively a form of disability, whether the law recognizes it as such or not, and that, as with any disability, it should be dealt with in a spirit of “reasonable accommodation.”

That isn’t happening. Instead, whole swaths of the federal government are reserved for bilingual employees. And rigid insistence on bilingualism is growing.

The most absurd manifestation is the drive to make bilingualism mandatory for all Supreme Court judges. There’s no evidence the court’s work has been deficient in any way. No one has ever shown that judges cannot function to the best of their ability with the assistance of translators. And it’s undeniable that mandatory bilingualism would have stopped a long list of legendary Supreme Court judges – including Bora Laskin, Brian Dickson, Bertha Wilson, and John Major – from ever having worn the red robes.

But no matter. Bilingualism’s more extreme advocates seem to care only about bilingualism.

How many Eisenhowers have we lost? How many will we lose? Not their concern.