Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Struggling With Bilingualism

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 16, 2010.

With the reader's indulgence, I'd like to tell a story that may be of interest to those concerned by a bill -- now before the Senate -- that would bar anyone who is not fully fluent in French and English from being appointed to the Supreme Court.

Longer ago than I care to remember, I was a graduate student of history. My focus was modern Germany, and so I tried to learn German.

But this was in Toronto and studying German in Toronto is like studying glaciation in Las Vegas. Books, recordings and classes can only take you so far. To get beyond the basics, you have to live the language.

So I scraped together every penny I had, flew to Germany, took a train to a gorgeous little town in the Rhineland, and enrolled in a Goethe Institute language school. Not even bankruptcy would stop me. I was serious about learning. I would learn, damn it.

I did not learn.

On leaving the plane, I immediately discovered Germans think English is cool and modern, and so English routinely appears in advertising. Not only catchphrases. Whole blocks of text. All English.

I also discovered that most Germans can speak English well. Too well. Whenever I spoke to a German, in any setting, they would smile politely as I struggled to the end of the sentence. Then they would respond. In English. Shopkeepers, waiters, and ticket clerks would become annoyed -- politely annoyed, mind you -- if I persisted in German. They were at work and teaching foreigners wasn't their job.

It didn't get much better at the Goethe Institute because German was only heard in the classrooms. I vividly recall going out the first night with some other students. There was a Czech, a Japanese, a Pole, a Norwegian, a Swede, and a Spaniard. We all spoke at least a little German, we were all there to learn German, and we were drinking German beer. And so, naturally, the entire conversation was in English.

Of course, there was still lots of German to encounter and lots of Germans to speak to -- even if I annoyed them -- and if I had stayed for six months or a year, I would have progressed. But I was broke. So back I went to Canada and my books, recordings and classes.

I gave up on German when I stopped studying history. Inevitably, my limited skills melted away. Today, I struggle with the headlines on the web site of Der Spiegel.

Why do I tell this tale of woe? Because whenever I write about bilingualism and the difficulty a native English-speaker has learning another language, I get e-mail from bilingual francophones saying -- in English, bien sûr -- that they resent "Anglo whining." Just learn French, damn it! One Montrealer called me a lazy bigot.

A bigot? Sure, whatever. But "lazy?" That is offensive.

The simple reality is that a native English-speaker attempting to learn another language is seldom in the same position as a native French-speaker doing the same. In a fair world, they would be. But that's not the world we live in. We live in a world where pop culture is overwhelmingly English, a world where Hollywood movies play in English on Dutch TV with Dutch subtitles, which is fabulous if you're a Dutch person learning English, but a disaster for the English-speaker in Amsterdam to learn Dutch.

The imbalance is even more extreme at the international level. A friend of mine is a scientist who travels constantly, often to China. He has attended conferences where he was the only non-Chinese scientist and the language of the conference was English. Why? Because English is the language of elite science. As it is the language of elite finance, business, sports and anything else done internationally.

The Finnish company Nokia recently asked me to lecture in Munich, Germany. They didn't ask me to speak in German, happily. In fact, they never mentioned language at all. Even though the audience came from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, it was a given that all business would be conducted in English. This is the norm. I've lectured in five countries on two continents and the only time language is ever mentioned is when I speak in Ottawa to the civil service.

That's just the way the world is. Everyone knows it. But the zealots pushing bilingualism to extreme lengths won't acknowledge it.

Instead, they shrug. Sure it's hard for adult anglophones to become bilingual, Graham Fraser, the official languages commissioner, wrote on this page Thursday. But lots do. Just look at Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, "born in Pincher Creek, Alta."

Fraser neglected to mention that Justice McLachlin did not learn French in Pincher Creek. She studied some French in university. And, after she was appointed to the federal bench, she took courses offered to federal judges. "At the time of her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada," I was informed by her office, "she had good reading French, and moderate oral French. She continued to study French once she was appointed to the Court, taking lessons regularly for several years prior to her appointment as Chief Justice, as well as working in French." Today she handles French without the assistance of translators.

Notice that the chief justice only became fully fluent in French when she had the opportunity to live the language, an opportunity denied most Anglophones living in a unilingual environment, which is to say, most people in the country. And please note that the description of the chief justice's fluency at the time of her appointment to the Supreme Court suggests she was not capable of doing the full gamut of judicial work in French without the assistance of a translator. That's enormously significant.

It means that if the bill now before the Senate had been in force at the time, Beverley McLachlin -- indisputably one of the finest jurists in this country's history -- would have been disqualified from sitting on the Supreme Court. The same is true of most of the Supreme Court justices of the last 50 years.

It's time for the chamber of sober second thought to live up to its billing and stop this foolishness.