linguistic nationalism, linguistic injuries, first-generation, second-generation, identity

Prioritizing Multilingualism Through the (Un) “Official Languages Act”

September 08, 2022

By Gloria Nystrom

Dr. Huamei Han’s publication Making Second Generation explores how linguistic nationalism contributes to linguistic injuries and differentiation between first and second-generation members of a Mainland Chinese Church in Canada. Framed by Canada’s model of “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework”, she posits that Canadian identities are entrenched in the linguistic and cultural hierarchy of the “two founding nations” of Canada. As such, sociopolitical structures maintain a sociolinguistic hierarchy where dominant language ideologies contribute to linguistic subordination and inequalities for racialized minorities. Dr. Han’s research aims to raise awareness of linguistic injuries and their impact on relationships between intergenerational racialized minorities.

Bourdieu (1986) defines “cultural capital” as the embodiment of knowledge, habits, and skills that make up the structure and functioning of a social world. Within a sociolinguistic hierarchy, cultural capital such as “native-like proficiency and fluency” in the “hyper-central language” of English (Piller, 2016) figures prominently in national ideologies of linguistic belonging. In Dr. Huamei Han’s publication, Making Second Generation, she argues that the use of ideological discourses of language proficiency in English and French contribute to linguistic injuries in Canada’s highly diverse multicultural and multilingual population. More explicitly, this form of linguistic subordination marginalizes racialized minorities within Canadian citizenry and contributes to inequalities within institutions and intergenerational families.

In Dr. Han’s study at a Mainland Chinese Church in Canada, the church congregants were divided into two groups: first-generation immigrants (the “Mandarin congregation”) and second-generation dependent children of immigrants (the “English congregation”). This structural divide, based on perceptions of linguistic affiliation, produced a disconnect and tension between the two groups with first-generation adults saying, “second-generation don’t speak Mandarin”, even though 93.3% of the youth in her research were revealed to be bilingual in English and Mandarin. In the Canadian context, a multilingual—and, implicitly multicultural—hierarchy iconizing Anglophone and Francophone identity creates a sociolinguistic hierarchy which contributes to the “de-coupling of minority languages from minority cultures” (Han, 2019, p. 66). In relation to Dr. Han’s participants, this resulted in perceptions of a language barrier between the two groups which showed how linguistic nationalism can cause linguistic injuries in racialized Canadians.

Additionally, Dr. Han’s research poignantly demonstrates how interpersonal linguistic injuries—psychological damage caused by explicit and implicit judgment of language and language use—perpetuated and suffered by first and second-generation members of the church contribute to feelings of inadequacy and linguistic insecurity. Acts of speaking are ideologically mediated (Du Bois, 1934, pp. 10–11) and involve understandings of how speakers as agents negotiate their positions and goals within a system of distinctions and possibilities (Irvine, 2002, p. 24). In Dr. Han’s study, youth in the “English congregation,” who immigrated to Canada as children, judged their English accents and pronunciation against native speaking norms while the “Mandarin congregation” of adults disclosed being “speechless” and feeling “powerless” when their children disrespected them by criticizing their accented English and inadequate understanding of local culture. In essence, both groups suffered equally from linguistic injuries stemming from “official” language legislations as well as “unofficial” linguistic ideologies which were discursively produced by Canadian citizens themselves. The findings of Dr. Han’s study show how dominant language ideologies and legislation such as Canada’s Official Languages Act define belonging within nation-state hierarchies.

It is important to note that although the Official Languages Act of 1969 and Multiculturalism Policy of 1971 recognize “diversity” as part of the Canada’s cultural wealth, surprisingly, there is no dedicated support for multilingual programs. But by making language acquisition the personal responsibility of immigrants and citizens, everyday language discrimination in culture and geographies is rendered invisible by legislated policies committed to “enhancing and supporting the development of English and French linguistic minority communities as an integral part of the two official language communities of Canada.” (Official Languages Act, 1988). Within such territorial spaces, linguistic diversity is excluded, delegitimized or subordinated because their ties to these places are linked to migration (Piller, 2016). Migration, encompassing past and present immigrants and subsequent generations born and raised in Canada, is used as a catalyst to implicitly promote national structures of subordination. Subordination continues through government acts such as the introduction of Bill C-13 on March 1, 2022, in Canada’s legislature to reform the Official Languages Act to further protect the French language and improve the rate of bilingualism among Canadians.

The 2022 focus of the Canadian Multicultural Heritage Council to encourage “cultural expression of multicultural communities as a part of Canadian heritage” with “lively music festivals, exciting film festivals, energetic concert celebrations, exhilarating dance performances” (Government of Canada, 2022) propagates superficial understandings of multiculturalism. Viewing multiculturalism uniquely through the symbols of clothing, cuisine, and music (cf. Troyna, 1986, “saris, samosas, and steel drums”), glosses over the sociopolitical, linguistic, and material experiences of racialized minorities living in landscapes staunchly committed to the “two founding communities of Canada” (Haque, 2012). Prioritizing multilingualism in what Haque (2012) calls “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework” would begin to address some of the inherent inequalities in Canada’s legislated policies. Afterall, “language ideologies are never only about language” (Gal, 2005, p. 24).


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Official Languages Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. 31 (1988).

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Han, H. (2019). Making “Second Generation,” inflicting linguistic injuries: An ethnography of a mainland Chinese Church in Canada. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 18(1), 55–69.

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