Archived - Notes for an address for the Bilingualism in Business: The Bilingual Advantage Symposium
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Souris, Prince Edward Island, March 5, 2013
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good afternoon. Bonjour.
It’s a pleasure to be with you here today in Prince Edward Island—Canada’s gentle island. Thank you for inviting me to discuss linguistic duality and its importance to business people.
Many of you may think that the question of official languages is solely a concern for government. You might be wondering—what business is it of the Commissioner of Official Languages what language I use?
I encountered that reaction when my office studied the visitor experience in Ottawa. Our observations, which I analyzed in my 2011–2012 annual report, turned out to be more positive and instructive than many had thought they would be.
We found that, though many workers in Canada’s capital are able to serve visitors in either English or French, that ability is often invisible. Few employees of the businesses we studied used the “Hello, bonjour” greeting to demonstrate that they can provide service in either official language—even though most of them were more bilingual than I had expected.
The preamble to the Official Languages Act commits the government of Canada to enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region and to encouraging Canada’s businesses, labour organizations and voluntary groups to recognize and use both English and French. The Act also gives the Commissioner a duty to take all actions and measures within his authority to ensure recognition of the status of each official language.
But serving customers in their first language is also important for business success.
Why should Quebec’s Francophone travellers get better service in French in Maine or Florida than in Atlantic Canada?
As Commissioner of Official Languages, my mandate is to take all measures needed to protect and strengthen the vitality of official language minority communities and to promote the equal status of English and French in Canadian society. Although the federal government is the main party responsible for this, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and the private sector also have important roles.
Canadians’ proficiency in English and French gives them a great advantage. Businesses operating in Canada also benefit from working effectively in both official languages. To succeed in an increasingly competitive environment, organizations must be concerned not just with strategy, finances, marketing and human resources management, but also with language, because language is crucial to all activities—especially in businesses that provide services to people—such as the tourism industry here in PEI.
Serving clients in both official languages can provide considerable economic spinoffs. More than 75,000 Francophone tourists travel through this area every year: they’re a huge part of your clientele. PEI must not ignore the role of linguistic duality in its economy.
Your success in business depends in part on your linguistic capabilities. I hope that today’s symposium will help you identify your needs, find ways to improve your linguistic capabilities, and thus increase your productivity and competitiveness.
Doing business means using language. To buy or sell, you have to communicate efficiently: exchange e-mails, give presentations, establish trusting relationships, read market studies, talk with potential clients, write calls for tenders.
Whether it’s providing commentary on sightseeing tours, writing restaurant menus, or serving customers in shops, you need to be able to address unilingual visitors in their own language. It’s a matter of being a good host. That’s why it’s best to have bilingual staff.
Learning French as a second language and drawing on the language knowledge of French‑speaking community members have real economic value, especially here in PEI. By percentage of population, Prince Edward Island has the third-highest rate of bilingualism in Canada: 12.7% of the population say they speak both English and French.
These days, with the worldwide economy in crisis, it’s a good time to emphasize that economic and linguistic issues are linked.
To see how language issues are becoming more important in industrialized countries, look at the studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and by Statistics Canada on the relationship between literacy and productivity. Or look at the National Centre for Languages statistics that show that small and medium-sized businesses in Europe are losing 100 billion euros a year for lack of language skillsFootnote 1.
Language is more than a communications tool: for most people, it is part of their identity. A study in Quebec and Finland found that clients who were served in the language of their choice were prepared to pay more for a product. Language and emotion are linked—business owners know that to sell a product or service, they have to pique clients’ interest and trigger positive emotions. Nothing is more touching than being addressed in your own language, especially when you are travelling. An immediate connection is made, even if the person doesn’t speak your language perfectlyFootnote 2. It’s good hospitality—and it’s good business.
Jeannette Arsenault, co-owner of Cavendish Figurines and spokesperson for the Acadian Francophone Chamber of Commerce, has experienced first-hand the bottom-line benefits of offering services in both official languages. She is participating in this symposium for the second time and is kindly sharing her experience with us.
To show that bilingualism is an intrinsic part of your service principles, you have to make your “corporate bilingualism” visible. Take the example of a hotel in Moncton—they make sure that all their signage is in English and French and that all employees greet each guest with a “Hello, bonjour.” This way, their guests are confident of receiving service in the official language of their choice at all times.
To position their hotel as bilingual, the management prioritizes candidates’ language skills from the moment they are hired. They provide unilingual staff with a free second-language course that focuses on the vocabulary they need to do their jobs. This develops a corporate culture that values linguistic duality.
Business owners: learning French as a second language and making sure your employees know enough French to serve your clients in their preferred language are certainly valuable best practices. I heard that the Municipality of Souris is offering beginner-level French conversation courses and that many business people registered so they’ll be able to offer better service to Francophone touristsFootnote 3. This is a step in the right direction to broadening your businesses’ reach.
Prince Edward Island, with its rich cultural and linguistic history, attracts visitors from far and wide: Canada (including Quebec), Europe, the United States and Japan. Its charm and heritage make the Island a “tourist product” that is sought after by both Canadians and foreigners. Linguistic duality is a true Canadian value—linking it to your business’s brand positions you as a true Canadian business. Your commercial reach will widen.
With the trend toward globalized, knowledge-based markets, linguistic duality provides a competitive advantage that can foster our country’s economic growth. With its two international official languages, Canada is a leader among societies with knowledge-based economies. This linguistic asset increases Canadian businesses’ access to markets and partnerships worldwide.
So from an economic point of view, it’s vital to promote linguistic duality. And what is the best way to promote linguistic duality within the economy? I think you have to focus on the labour force.
The language skills of Canada’s workforce, particularly those of its young workers, are a key asset for the economy. They make it possible for Canadians to establish solid economic relationships with international partners. That is why we must foster linguistic duality among our young people: our economy depends on it.
And Canadians’ attitude to learning their second official language has never been better.
Because mastery of several languages provides a competitive advantage in the new economy, the federal government and its provincial, territorial and private-sector partners have much to gain by promoting and supporting second-language learning.
Second-language learning also boosts domestic trade by facilitating workforce mobility. Young Canadians need more opportunities to improve their second-language skills as they prepare to enter the labour market.
As business people, you are ambassadors of the Island, a place that many people dream of visiting. You’re the ones who make people want to come here and spend money. Each of you has a role to play!
The success of your businesses is inseparable from linguistic duality. You need both official languages to take advantage of business opportunities: local, national and international. Young Islanders—the business people of tomorrow—need to master both official languages and see their language skills as keys to success in business.
Europe and Asia are attractive markets for both tourism and fishery products, and if Island business people and workers know both official languages—and yes, other languages too—they will be able to make the regional economy grow. This knowledge of languages will also help Islanders promote their culture elsewhere in the world.
Thank you. I would now like to answer any questions you have.
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