Cracking the code on language policy: For a clear, accessible definition | On the tip of my tongue, OLBI’s language column

Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute
Language planning
a woman explaining to a man
In our quest to demystify complex language concepts through this column, OLBI’s Marketing team spoke with Nikolay Slavkov, Director of the Canadian Centre for Studies and Research on Bilingualism and Language Planning (CCERBAL) and OLBI Full Professor, for insights on language policy. 

Language policy is a concept that refers to a set of rules, regulations or laws regarding the use of languages. Sometimes the terms “language planning” or “language management” are also used. These rules can be created and implemented by certain authorities, for example, governments, school boards and universities, or international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and so on.

Language policies often relate to which languages are used or how to use them in a given organization, region or country. They can be written regulations or laws in a legal framework, or they could be implicit, unwritten rules or practices set by communities. The University of Ottawa’s Regulation on Bilingualism is an example of an institutional language policy.

Language policies are significant because they can have a high impact on society in general, and on which languages are spoken and used in a defined area of jurisdiction. They can foreground certain languages while making other languages backgrounded or invisible. Therefore, they can have a positive or negative influence. Some languages can become very important, whereas others can become endangered or even disappear.

Canada has, in many ways, good language policies because it has managed to define itself as a bilingual country with two official languages rather than just one. However, there have also been some failures, most notably with the situation of Indigenous languages. This has been evidenced by the system of residential schools and long-standing discrimination against Indigenous people documented, for example, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Recently, the Canadian government has striven to bring positive change, for instance, by implementing the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019.

Language policy affects us in our everyday lives. The language in which we receive services and the language in which children are educated are two examples of how our daily practices are modulated by language policies. French and English immersion programs, such as the immersion programs offered at uOttawa, are conceived in the broader context of existing language policies  and are intended to make people more comfortable using these languages in Canadian society.

Language policies are based on people’s beliefs, attitudes and ideologies. The latter live in the back of our minds, and are sometimes based on colonialism, discrimination and racism against peoples, cultures and languages. Nowadays, our ideologies have changed and are increasingly based on inclusion and diversity.

OLBI and its research centre, the CCERBAL, have a very important role in language policy and planning. This field is a pillar of our research, teaching and outreach activities. The CCERBAL has experts specialized in federal language policy, which is important in Canada because of its official languages.

These experts understand how the Canadian federal framework of bilingualism works, along with its complex regulations, laws and practices. The CCERBAL also has experts on educational language policies of provincial governments, who are responsible for school boards and universities.

In addition, the CCERBAL has experts on “family language policy,” which refers to explicit or implicit rules or practices within families. These experts focus their research on questions, such as: 

  • Who speaks which language to whom within a family setting?
  • How do older generations pass on their languages to their children?
  • If parents speak different languages at home, will their children speak the same languages or transition to new languages?
  • Are there helpful strategies that parents can use to make sure that the richness of the family’s resources are transmitted to their children rather than the children becoming monolingual?

In an increasingly interrelated world, multilingual family units have become a deep-seated reality where these issues have significant relevance.

CCERBAL’s experts do research in these areas, teach university students, network with stakeholders, and organize events and dissemination activities, including CCERBAL research forums. Moreover, Monika Jezak, Vice-Dean, Students, at the Faculty of Arts and OLBI Professor, is the lead professor responsible for the Compendium of Language Management in Canada, an online resource accessible to experts, policy-makers and the general public.