The role the language play in a civilized society

Tung Chan – March 2008

In a civilized society, people share their knowledge, beliefs and culture through communication.  The ideals of a civilized society are created after long periods, sometimes generations, of constructive discourse.  Debates of contentious topics that shift our understanding and tolerance, often begin over family dinners, carry over to the work place and move finally to public forums and the media.     

But what would happen if there were no debate?
What if some strong points of view were presented and agreed to by only one segment of the society and unknown to the larger society?
Surely such a disparity could not and should not exist unchecked in our society?

Unfortunately, this very scenario has been quietly unfolding, under mainstream Canada’s radar.
In the Lower Mainland, there are literally hundreds of media outlets in a variety of languages serving the multitude of cultural communities.  These media outlets serve a very useful and important function in helping new comers who lack the ability to fully understand our official languages.  They are lifelines that help people overcome their initial cultural shock and familiarize them with social issues important to Canada.

But reporters and editors report and editorialize through their own cultural lenses.  As a result, most non-English language media outlets report and interpret news from a new and different Canadian’s perspective.  Some of them may even advocate a point of view that is diabolically opposed to the mainstay of our society.  

Ordinarily, such diverse points of view are fundamental to a free and democratic society.  Ordinarily, however, people would be aware that a different point of view from what is proclaimed exists and a debate may ensure.  Ordinarily, while total agreement may not be reached through debate and dialogue, people would at least understand each other’s position and perspective.

This is not happening now.

There is no institutionalized sharing of opinions between the various non-English language communities and the larger community.  The opinions of popular English talk show hosts have no impact on the non-English speaking communities.  The reverse is also true.  For example, how many readers of this article know one of the Chinese radio stations recently started a petition for more police officers and collected thousands of signatures?

While the majority of the people who regularly listen to CBC may not be listeners of CKNW because of preference, the majority of CBC listeners are not Fairchild (Chinese) radio listeners because of the language barrier.  While Fairchild Radio’s morning host Dr. K. K. Wan would have a good idea what Rick Cluff is saying, Rick would not have a clue on what K.K. is saying, even if he were to tune to Fairchild radio.  

This has created an interesting parallel reality.

These parallel realities are exposed when opinions on so-call wedge issues are debated.  These wedge issues include morality issues such as same sex marriage and drug treatment policy; law and order issues such as minimum sentencing and capital punishment; immigrant settlement issues such as credentialing and English language training availability.  

If we want to create a civilized society with the kind of social cohesion that we all want, we need to find ways to talk to each other.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how we can break down the silos formed by language?  How can we debate such important issues together, and not have it confined by language?

Currently, our provincial government and the City of Vancouver subscribe to media monitoring services of the Chinese language media.  Our major English language media may perhaps want to follow suite.  But merely monitoring what is reported is not sufficient.  Someone in an executive position, sensitive to the issues from a new comers’ perspective, needs to interpret the reports and act.  

On the other hand, we may encourage and facilitate people who work in non English media outlets to gain more understanding of Canada’s history, value and aspiration.  Such knowledge will likely improve the chance of news being reported and interpreted from more of a Canadian perspective.

The need for change is now.  If we continue the way we are, Canada will have stratified ideals, bound by ethnicity and language, created by our inability to communicate.  It is not the future I wish to see for my country.

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