Thursday, January 31, 2008

Of Course I'm Right. I Speak English.

Some people’s world view is a wee bit too narrow for my tastes, and my blood pressure.
Yesterday an advice column in a newspaper dealt with a question from a concerned grandmother. Her DIL spoke perfect English, but spoke some other language first. DIL was teaching her baby this tongue and grandma feared baby was being isolated from the rest of the family.
Umm grandma, your son and pretty much everyone else speaks English to the kid. Baby will hear it on the radio, the television, out on the street, and everywhere else. You have nothing to fear except being found intellectually wanting. The kid is going to have a great advantage in that s/he’ll be bilingual.

Maybe there’s hope for grandma, but I doubt it. I’ve heard too many people express something similar.
Back in the early 1980s I found myself in a bar in Athens in the wee hours having a few drinks with some people from Norway. Thankfully, they spoke English. They learn it in school along with several other tongues. It serves them well when they travel, especially when they’re conversing with some poor critter whose only tongue is English.

I was fascinated and more than a little ashamed when I heard about education in Europe as compared with ours.
We think English is the only language we have to know and it would be best if everyone would just learn it already so we can talk.

A year or so later I moved to a small town in Central Alberta where French was viewed with suspicion.
The common view of French: Okay, it’s Canada’s other official language, but nobody speaks it out here so why should we force our kids to learn it?

It’s the international language of commerce, we argue. It’s them furriner’s what talk funny that have to change, not us.

When I moved to Rocky 20 years ago a French Immersion program had just started at an elementary school. A local woman insisted at a public meeting that the kids would “lose their English.”
No amount of reassurance that they spoke it at home and virtually everywhere else except school eased her fear.

When you study a foreign tongue you don’t lose your first language, you gain a second. This woman went on to serve on the local school board for a few years. I’m pleased to report the French Immersion Program is still thriving today.

Years ago I tried to teach myself German. I got along okay and could even read children’s stories. I reached my goal of being able to read Die Wichtelmänner (The Shoemaker and the Elves) in German.
I discovered that it made me think more carefully how I expressed myself. I spoke better English for having learned some German.

Being bilingual or multilingual is an asset, not a detriment. I won’t win any argument with narrow-minded uniliguals, but I can say this to them with a certain satisfaction:
Scher dich zum Teufel.


Ann (bunnygirl) said...

A local woman insisted at a public meeting that the kids would “lose their English.”

Wow, I've never heard that one before, and I thought I had heard them all!

Leah J. Utas said...

Oh, Bunnygirl, she said it many times. And she was not alone.

Crabby McSlacker said...

I really feel a bit jealous of kids raised to be bilingual--you really can't learn languages easily or ever sound as natural if you learn as an adult.

We Americans are the worst in failing to appreciate the utility of speaking other languages. We just expect everyone in the world to learn ours.

(I tried to learn french in school but without much success. Don't remember much at all, unfortunately).

Leah J. Utas said...

That's right, Crabby. We learn best when we're young.

I don't remember much about the French I allegedly learned in school either.

the Bag Lady said...

Oh, how I wish I had paid more attention in my French class in school! It would have been a terrific asset a few years ago when I was trying to converse with my friends' father, whose English was as non-existent as my French was.
Too bad Grandad didn't teach his kids at least a couple of the 7 languages that he spoke, eh, Leah? They might have been able to pass the ability down to us.

Leah J. Utas said...

dfBagLady - Oh, yeah. I do wish granddad had passed a few along. But he refused to speak anything but English.

Hilary said...

I was raised in Quebec and absolutely had to learn French.. retaining it was another thing. I also lived in a predominantly English neighbourhood, so the French kids became more adept at learning English than we did with French. That was their gain for sure.

The Quebec school system has improved greatly since then, with a much bigger push on educating its students in French. Here in southern Ontario.. not so much.

We have two official languages in Canada. What an amazing opportunity to learn, and how sad that most of us have learned so little of the other.

C'est la vie.

Oh and reading Baggie's comment... my grandfather (who died before I was born), was a court interpreter in Montreal and spoke 7 languages too. Interestingly enough, French was not one of them.

the Bag Lady said...

Our grandfather spoke mostly Baltic languages, I think. He was born in a Swedish settlement in Russia (very long story there), and spoke both those languages, as well as German, Ukrainian, and a couple other Baltic languages, and English, of course.
Dad remembered him using a few Swedish words for household things like butter, but he refused to teach his children.

Reb said...

Good post Leah. I find it very frustrating that everyone in western Canada rails about immigrants not learning English before they move here. Something I do try to avoid doing myself - notice I said try! What if they had learned French, but the only job was here? Well, they did learn one official language, but no-one here would give them credit for it.

What I wonder is where are those first French immersion students now - did they all wind up in Eastern Canada to take advantage of the language, or have they let it fall by the wayside?

A second language would be nice though.

Leah J. Utas said...

Hello Hilary. I take it French was your second language and that's why you're not retaining it?

You'd think learning both tongues would be an obvious inclusion in the education system, but I suppose that's too logical.

dfBagLady - Aunt Violet told me once it was eight languages and she rattled them off for me. Along with those you mentioned he also spoke French and apparently Latin.

Reb - This is the west. No one gets credit for speaking French. And if you're wise, you won't own up to speaking it either.

Excellent question about the Fr. Im. kids. One got a music degree and worked on a cruise ship for a while just for fun and experience.
It'd be a great idea to catch up with some of them for one of my freelance stories.
Thanks so much!

Hilary said...

Correct, Leah. I never spoke French fluently and made best use of it when I was working in Montreal post 1976, when the Quebeçois became insistent on French being the first language of the province. Still I struggled with it, and since moving to Ontario in 1983, I've had very little opportunity to use it... and so it fades. The country is nowhere near as billingual as the law deems us to be. Tis a shame really.

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