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Political and institutional foundations of language management in Canada

How do states choose their language policies? Why do these policies differ from country to country? This section focusses on the institutional and political foundations of language management in Canada.

About the author

Linda Cardinal

Linda Cardinal

Linda Cardinal is full professor at the School of Political Science and holder of the Chair of Research on Francophonie and Public Policy. Specializing in the relationship between language, rights and politics, her work focuses on the comparative analysis of language regimes, language minority issues, language policies and language development (within Canada, Europe and internationally). Linda Cardinal also studies Canadian and Quebec politics, debates on identity and citizenship, federalism, institutions, political representation of minorities, and the history of political ideas in the light of debates on language studies.
For more information, please contact Professor Linda Cardinal: [email protected]

About this section

The term "institutional and political foundations" refers to the particular role of state traditions in the formulation and the implementation of language policies; namely the institutional, the administrative, and the normative background that guides state action in the political sphere.

All countries make choices regarding language. Research on language regimes shows that the presence, or the lack of, linguistic policies within a given country is based, on the one hand, on the representations and practices of the language within it [1]. On the other hand, these representations and practices have an undeniable institutional and political foundation. For example, in the United States, language is based on a laissez-faire approach compared to France who is characterized by its Jacobin tradition. These traditions influence the choices of the American and French states in the field of language policies. The United States favors the principle of non-intervention, thus allowing languages to compete with one another, enabling English to assert itself as the dominant language. By contrast, France has an interventionist approach, which imposes French throughout its territory while allowing certain accommodations favorable to regional languages such as Basque, Breton, or Corsican [2].

In Canada, the most important normative and institutional traditions that guide language policy decisions are those of political compromise and federalism. The Canadian federal tradition stems from the development of the Canadian state since the British conquest of New France. It guides language policy choices, the main characteristic of which is to be the result of compromise.

Since its foundation, Canada has adopted language infrastructures, instruments, and principles. It recognizes the constitutional recognition of the equality of English and French in law, status, and privilege in the institutions of Parliament and of the Canadian government. The recognition of language rights in Canada represents a major advancement in the area of official languages. There are also distinct language policies in all of Canada`s provinces and territories. Federalism makes possible a great diversity of language policies. Obviously, the language regime in Canada has been transformed and complexed since its beginnings. Canada is a great work-in-progress in the area of language management. We will see patterns of continuity and change in the development of Canada’s language regime, in particular how state traditions continue to guide language policy choices.

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[1] Linda Cardinal and Selma Sonntag, « Traditions étatiques et régimes linguistiques : comment et pourquoi s’opèrent les choix de politiques linguistiques ? », Revue internationale de politique comparée,  vol. 22, no 1, 2015, p. 115-131.

[2] Jean-Baptiste Harguindéguy and Alistair Cole, « La politique linguistique de la France à l’épreuve des revendications ethno-territoriales », Revue française de science politique,  vol. 59, no 5, 2009, p. 939-966.