December 15, 2020

English is the Only Language ... Right?

By: Sapphire Mendonca

Photo Credit: Sapphire Mendonca

Language is something I never thought much of when I was growing up. I assumed that most people came from monolingual homes and that it was typical to only be able to speak English. It wasn’t until I became friends with a girl named Maria that my opinions changed. She comes from multilingual home, as her mom is from Venezuela and brought Spanish with her when she immigrated to Canada. Maria and her siblings also speak English very fluently since they grew up going to an English-speaking school and her parents learned English as a second language. Maria and her siblings also speak Spanish fluently as they were exposed to it in their home growing up. . It wasn’t until I was exposed to this environment that I realized people spoke other 

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 languages in their home and relied on these languages to properly communicate with one another. Although Maria and I have drifted over the past few years, the impact this experience had on my views of language and bilingualism as a child has endured.

My Family Life

Growing up, I only spoke English in my home despite having a father who immigrated from Pakistan when he was 17 and grew up speaking Urdu. My mom, an anglophone raised in Quebec, can only speak English so growing up my Dad rarely spoke Urdu, meaning my sister and I never learned how. Even my cousins on my fathers side, who are a mix of 1.5 and second generation immigrants don't speak the language. As a result, language was never a big part of my Canadian identity growing up. I was born and have grown up in Canada all my life, so not speaking French, an Indigenous language or another heritage language didn't impact my feeling of nationalism. Looking back, this likely didn't impact my identity because English is one of the official languages of Canada, and also the dominant language in Ontario. Since most mainstream schools, post-secondary institutions and workplaces are in English, it's nearly impossible to be successful without at least some knowledge of the 

Photo Credit: Sapphire Mendonca

language. Another reason my identity wasn't impacted much by my dad's heritage language is because I'm adopted, and genetically never really felt a tie to the language Urdu or the culture that goes with it. I'm half English and half Jamaican, something I didn't know before I was 18. I wasn't exposed to Patois, a Jamaican dialect of English, and instead was exposed to Standard English. Since I only spoke English and didn't have a language tied to my ethnicity, language didn't play a big role in my identity. However, language is important to many of my other older family members who immigrated from Pakistan, since Urdu indexes their identity as Pakistanis and is a way to maintain ties to their culture and heritage in Canada. 

Photo Credit: Sapphire Mendonca

" Since I only spoke English and didn't have a language tied to my ethnicity, language didn't play a big role in my identity..."

Learning a New Language

My first experience learning another language was shortly after I met Maria, when I started taking Core French in grade 4 until the end of grade 9. I don't have much memory of what happened during this time in my life, but I do remember dreading French class. Since I only had French a few times a week and it was mandatory, I didn't value the class and learning French at the time. I didn't feel like I was learning much more of the language each year so I didn't see it as being useful for my life. I also remember my teacher being very strict since she only let us speak French in class and we would get in trouble if we spoke English. I didn't quite understand this language policy at the time and it made me hate the class even more since I didn't feel confident enough to communicate. Looking back, the way classmates treated my French teacher reflected how they felt about learning French altogether. Anyone who knows a French teacher or has taken French class has likely seen the difference between how students treat their classroom teacher compared to their French teacher. Students that didn't like French class or the language ultimately didn't like the teacher, and some people even took this out on how they treated her. I was never a student who did this, but I carried my opinions about the mainstream French class with me to high school and is the main reason why I didn't continue past grade 9. Looking back, I wish I had continued to learn French and taken the classes more seriously, especially since it is one of the official languages of Canada. Knowing the language would open many opportunities for me for work and I would be able to communicate better in public when visiting my mom's hometown in Quebec. 

"Looking back, the way classmates treated my French teacher reflected how they felt about French altogether. Students that didn't like French ultimately didn't like the teacher and took this out on how they treated her..."

European Union of the Deaf, https://www.eud.eu/news/see-all-articles/

My second experience learning another language was later on in high school when I decided I wanted to learn American Sign Language. Unfortunately, my high school didn't offer any classes. Instead, I looked and found classes at Canadian Hearing Services and voluntarily chose to pay to register. I have no personal tie to the language as I have no Deaf family members or friends, but for some reason I was drawn to learning the language. I really enjoyed the course and felt like I left the first level with some skills that would be very useful, especially since I work in customer service and serve Deaf customers every now and then. Since the course, I have registered for another level, I have also  joined an ASL club at Western University to meet people with similar interests, and to develop and to maintain my signing skills. Having this community of practice has really helped me find a sense of community at Western, and helps me maintain what I've learned in my classes, something I have struggled with in the past when learning new languages. I think part of the reason I enjoyed this course 

more than French is because I was older when I started to take the course, and it was something I chose to do instead of something I was forced to do in school. I was also surrounded by people who were actually interested in taking the course, and my class was smaller. 

My third experience with learning a new language was in my first year of university when I took an Introduction to Spanish course. For the program I'm studying, I have to complete one credit of a language course. There were many language classes to choose from, but I decided to try Spanish thinking it would count towards my credit. Even though I was "forced" to take a language course, I didn't feel restricted like the way I did with French since I still had options to choose from. When I signed up for the course, I felt pretty neutral about taking it. I wasn't really looking forward to learning another language and was discouraged because of my experience with French, but I also wasn't dreading it. I had expected to not learn much that would really help me in a conversational setting and expected to leave with minimal skills. However, in the end I really enjoyed the course and felt like I left it with some real language skills I could use in the world. I had an amazing professor and I really enjoyed the format of the class and would love to take another level if I had enough space in my schedule. I honestly feel like I left my one year

introductory course with more Spanish skills than I had gained during the 5 years I learned French. Even though the first year Spanish course I took didn't end up counting towards my language credit needed for graduation, I don't regret taking the course and would still take it again. 
Photo Credit: Sapphire Mendonca

What Makes A Language "Valuable" To learn?

But what makes a language worth learning, especially if you don't have any personal connection to it? Something I've noticed just through looking back at my experience is rating how "worthwhile" or "practical" it is to learn another language based on how much it will benefit me personally especially in real world experiences. Looking at a languages functionalism is something I myself am guilty of doing before deciding to take a language course. Even as I talk about my experience with French, Spanish and ASL

something I always come back to is if it is useful in my life. I didn't value learning French when I was younger because I didn't see how learning the language would be useful to me since I didn't feel comfortable having a conversation in French. However, I did enjoy my Spanish and ASL classes more because I felt I learned information and skills that would benefit me past the courses. Even at my summer job at the Toronto Zoo, I've used my ASL and Spanish skills to help guests who speak them as their first language and have difficulty communicating in English, while my lack of French skills have not benefited me in this way. ​​

Photo Credit: Sapphire Mendonca

Language is a very important resource, but that isn't the only thing it's good for. I've learned so much about different cultures and issues through the courses I've taken. After taking my ASL classes, I feel better educated on issues the Deaf community faces, Deaf culture and things the hearing community does without realizing the impact it has on the Deaf community as a whole. After taking Spanish, I learned a lot about the culture of my professor who was from Venezuela and exposed myself to her culture's food and traditions. I never knew how delicious Arepas were or how beautiful the Carnaval celebrations there could be. Something I have realized is that in a way language also ties you to the culture, as long as you are open to fully immersing yourself in it.

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"In a way, language also ties you to the culture as long as you are open to fully immersing yourself in it..."

So what's the takeaway from my experience? Take a language course! Be open to new experiences and cultures. Don't write off a language just because you don't have a personal connection to it or don't think it will be "useful" to you. You never know what you'll learn about yourself, others and different cultures around the world. You might surprise yourself with what you're capable of.

Even though I have some regrets, if I could do it all over again I wouldn't change a thing because everything I've learned has brought me to how I think about and view language and the world today.