Posted by: Manuel Delgado | February 16, 2010

Oh Canada

Last Friday, Canada displayed its most beautiful face to the world.
The Olympic ceremony was a success (in spite of the Olympic cauldron “malfunction”). Its intimacy and human scale contrasted with the massive opening ceremony in Beijing.
Breathtaking imagery of the Canadian landscape completed an event that should make Canadians proud.
I’ve always found Canada to be a very interesting country. For starters, it’s big.
A few years ago a Canadian colleague shared a story that put the size of the country in perspective: his sister was a doctor in a northern outpost so remote, that Toronto was closer to Miami than to her town.
However, because of the weather, 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles from the US border, making Canada a sort of horizontal Chile. Also, Canada has a smaller population than the Hispanic population of the US.
During the Olympic ceremony, many of the speakers switched seamlessly from English to French and back. This prompted many comments about the bilingualism of the country.
Victor Ramos, a journalist for the Orlando Sentinel, summed up the sentiment on a Twitter post: “Canadians sure don’t seem hung up on monolingualism.”
The reality is quite the opposite.
About 1 of every 5 Canadians speak French, and 85% of French speakers live in Quebec. However, not only the entire country is required by law to give equal treatment to the French language, but English is not recognized as an official language in Quebec.
The law regulating the use of French in Quebec was passed in 1974 with the goal of making French “the language of Government and the Law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”
The implications for marketing and commerce are tremendous. It is illegal not to include French as the most prominent language in product labels, instructions, manuals, warranty certificates, restaurant menus, wine lists, catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories or computer software (except video games).
The usage of French is truly taken to extremes. Even the stop signs in the streets read “ARRÊT”… but in France, the stop signs read, well, “STOP.”
I don’t agree that any language has the right to steamroll over another. Language is at the core of human identity, and trying to suppress it, like it happened with Catalan and Basque during the Spanish dictatorship of Franco, can cause violent outbursts of national pride.
But the usage of language in commerce has to be driven by commerce, not by law. Spanish in the US is used because it makes sense from a financial point of view.
While in Canada, the French language is an increased cost for marketers; Spanish is a source of incremental revenue in the US.  Brands make money when they include Español in their marketing efforts.
Thanks to a growing affluence of the Hispanic community, the second most important language in the US is spelled $pani$h.


  1. Hi. Interesting post. I knew about Quebec and the tension they had there over language issues at the end of the 1990s. While English and French were the top languages used in the opening ceremony, I also referred to all the other native languages and customs on display. I did think about what could be below the surface when I wrote that comment, so I said "seem" because I am not sure of how the cultural mix plays out beyond what was presented to the world. But think about it… the U.S. is very linguistically diverse and has native American populations as well, but they have not really shared the spotlight in the same way at an event of this nature. I have some questions: Are you in Canada? Aside from the Quebec issue over language, how do the other languages coexist in Canada?

  2. Hi Victor – thanks for your comments. I am in Texas, but had experience marketing in Canada in one of my past "lives" a few years ago at Compaq.My main point was to contrast the usage of Spanish in the US with French in Canada. While language is mainly a political issue in Canada, in the US the growth has occured as a natural byproduct of immigration and increased purchasing power of the Hispanic population.

  3. Very interesting post … especially with with International Mother Language Day only a couple of days away (21st February as proclaimed by UNESCO) … as well as being the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.Should governments legislate the use of multiple languages in a culture or should they adopt more of a laissez-faire approach to language use both in business and society? While I agree that legislating language use in business might be going too far and does impose cost to comply, I think government policies that encourage multilingualism are good. I am a big supporter of children being required to learn a second language. In non-English speaking countries, in most cases, their children are required to learn English for advancement. I think compulsory multilingualism in schools would provide economic benefits and foster greater understanding and respect between cultures.MD what are your thoughts on compulsory requirements for all school children to learn a second language?BTW … Great blog!!

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