The language I didn’t know I lost (by Melissa Enns)

I think that at this point in Canadian history, most of us have some awareness of the realities of language shift. Courses in many undergraduate programs discuss the loss of indigenous languages of Canada through the linguistic and cultural repression that occurred in residential schools.

The tragedy of what happened in residential schools cannot be overstated, and I firmly believe that every effort should be made to redress this terrible part of colonial history. However, even when we’re aware of the overt and cruel linguistic and cultural impositions made by governments, many of us may still miss the fact that there are myriad ways in which Canadian governments have also influenced language shifts in subtler ways.

Until recent years, I didn’t fully appreciate the systematic and deliberate non-violent ways by which various policies and laws have reproduced normative linguistic values which cause people to want, and identify with, the dominant language(s) and even feel proud of their successful integration into mainstream society, at the expense of losing their heritage languages. This embodies Gramsci’s (1971) notion of hegemony, a concept that describes “how subjugated people are convinced to embrace dominant ideologies as always being in their own best interests” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 299). Despite Canada’s (questionable) reputation for “multiculturalism,” hegemony runs thickly throughout colonial history.

I’ve blogged a little about the interrelatedness of language policy and nation-building in my language education blog, Ramblings of a Linguaphile. In these posts, I discuss how a key objective of nation-building practices is to stimulate investment in the nation-state through cultivating a national identity built upon a unified set of linguistic and cultural values (May, 2011).

As a case in point, a recent talk by Dr. Andrea Sterzuk for the BILD Speaker Series opened my eyes to a fact I had never consciously processed: I, too, am a product of the political propaganda of linguistic and cultural unity. For much of my life I unquestioningly accepted white English ways of living as normal and right, but I have my own family’s history of language shift. The combination of these two things makes me a full-blown product of the hegemony of language shift in Canada.

By heritage, I am a Saskatchewan Mennonite on my father’s side. I believe his grandparents came to Canada from the Netherlands (whenever I ask what their actual nationality was, I get explanations which emphasizes the nomadic history of the Mennonites, painting them as a nation unto themselves so that named countries are irrelevant). They spoke a dialect of Low German infused with Dutch known as Plautdietsch. My family commonly refers to it as “Low German” or simply “German.”

My grandmother speaks (or at least used to speak) the language fluently, but I have never heard her utter more than a phrase or verse. My father and his siblings learned a little Plautdietsch (my great grandmother refused to speak English) but gained little fluency, as English was the main language in the home. By the time I came around, Low German was present only in jokes and occasional random phrases. When I asked my grandmother to teach me some of the language, I ended up showing little investment, because I didn’t identify with it. I saw myself as Canadian and English as a universal default, the only language I would ever need (what a sadly microscopic worldview!). Never once did I realize that language shift had occurred in my own family, and I’m not sure how many in my family have thought of it.

On a micro level, it seems innocent enough—English was more useful, so a family of people naturalistically changed their practices. However, zooming out, it becomes apparent that my family wasn’t the only one to abandon ways of being and doing that were incongruous with Canada’s supposed national identity, and this change did not always occur happily. In fact, governmental policies encouraged, pushed for, and enforced the shift.

Sterzuk’s recent talk highlighted some pieces of the Saskatchewan government’s educational policies that I had not previously known. Between 1929 and 1934, J. T. M. Anderson’s provincial government enacted policies of “Canadianization” of immigrants, encouraging them to take on Canadian” identities, by dressing, speaking, and acting like the British colonialists Canadians were supposed to be. “Other” languages were removed from schools, and students, including my grandfather, were punished for using their home languages. What I grew up thinking was a natural change was actually a product of government policies designed to smother diversity, and what amazes me is that I always saw it as natural and right.

In the face of English-centred ideologies, Quebec has defended the French language through Bill 101. However, this can create a similar situation with a different dominant language within the province of Quebec, where immigrants are encouraged to take “francisation” classes to “accelerate [their] integration in Quebec” and allophone children (whose first language is neither French nor English) are required to do their schooling in French, again creating a standard of fluency in a dominant language as an elusive gateway to full inclusion. In debates over whether allophone children should go to French schools or be permitted to attend English ones, support for their home languages is an issue that is seldom, if ever, raised at all (see Castonguay, 2007, and the links above).

All this is to say that we, as citizens, friends, and educators, should be careful about the attitudes we reproduce. Although it’s too late for me, personally, to regain—or truthfully, even identify with—the language of my heritage, I can do whatever possible to encourage others as they struggle through the processes of maintaining their original identities while taking on new ones. As a teacher of English as a Second/Alternative Language, the attitudes I portray have an impact. Instead of teaching English or French to replace other languages, we can strive to portray these as additions to already rich linguistic repertoires, and we can frame our dialogue in such a way as to value, respect, and preserve home languages and practices. Perhaps one day, we can say we are part of a truly multicultural nation.



Brookfield, S. (1995). The concept of critical reflection: promises and contradictions. European Journal of Social Work, 12(3), 293-304. DOI: 10.1080/1369145090294525.

Castonguay, C. (November 14, 2007). Encore un constant linguistique trompeur. L’Aut’Journal. Retrieved from

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. Ed. Q. Hoare & G.N. Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

May, S. (2011). Language policy. Chapter 7 in Grenfell, M. Bourdieu, language and linguistics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

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