Speaking in Tongues

One province, many languages: Babel or boom?

By Peter Norman

It was a frigid January afternoon in Calgary, nearing rush hour, and I was aboard the C-Train. The bodies crammed into the front car were bundled up in toques and puffy coats. There wasn’t much room.

We had been idling at the Third Street station for quite some time. The train seemed stuck. Impatience gave way to confusion as a female voice was heard, faintly: “Please step away from the door.” Passengers near the exit shuffled inward, but no doors opened, and the voice repeated its request.

The passenger sitting beside me announced, for everyone’s edification, “Someone who doesn’t speak English must be standing in the way.”

At last the situation became clear: the driver was trying to leave her cab so she could examine a mechanical malfunction elsewhere in the train, and one passenger was blocking the narrow door. The problem had nothing to do with a failure to understand English.

But my fellow passenger’s opinion is one I’d heard before: multilingualism equals chaos. One nation should speak one language (or at least stick with its official two); immigrants should demonstrate language proficiency before we let them in. I’ve heard this view expressed in cities across Canada by bus drivers, bar patrons, professionals on smoke break outside swish office buildings. It’s the Tower of Babel argument: too many voices make so much babble, and nothing gets built.

But there is a contrary theory. It suggests that an array of languages makes a country stronger. The culture is enriched. A competitive advantage is gained in the arena of global trade. Through classes and other forms of cultural exchange, citizens can teach and learn one another’s mother tongues, strengthening the bonds among cultural communities. John Ralston Saul, a leading proponent of this view, has said that “multilingualism inside a country, if treated properly, will become a motor of civilization. A motor of the imagination.”

My fellow passenger was not thinking along such lofty lines; his concerns were more practical. Perhaps he’d seen immigrants or international students stumped by the instructions on a ticket vending machine or an announcement from a loudspeaker. It’s a common sight: an estimated one billion non-native speakers worldwide are embroiled in the devilishly difficult task of mastering English.

Some people are compelled to study the language even though they’ll never use it. Take  South  Korea,  where  a  high score on the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) is considered a prerequisite to getting a good job. Koreans account for 14 per cent of the million-plus people who write the test annually. In the words of Min Seong-bin,   a Pusan-based television journalist who studied English in Vancouver, “most Korean businessmen never use their high scored English. That’s irony, huh?”

This comes as good news to young English speakers seeking employment. It’s a cliché among the educated and aimless: if you want easily obtained work, teach English as a Second Language (ESL). Armed only with a university degree (and sometimes less), you can set up camp in Seoul or Kyoto or Taipei and make good money helping locals understand the difference between, say, stop smoking and stop to smoke.

I myself toiled in the ESL trenches for five years—not abroad, but here in Canada. The work was mostly rewarding and fun: I met hundreds of fascinating people; I helped them communicate and improve their job prospects. But unease lurked beneath my enjoyment.

Like any thriving business, the ESL machine meets a huge demand. And, like many such demands (the need for oil, say, or cosmetics), it’s not clear if this one is entirely wholesome. Driven first by Empire and later by globalization, the English language has rampaged over the planet, to questionable effect.

It will not dominate forever: a number of languages are gaining ground, Chinese and Spanish chief among them. In The Future of English, author David Graddol predicts that the end of this century will see “an ‘oligopoly’ consisting of a group of major languages, each with particular spheres of influence.”

But a dire fate awaits many of the world’s more fragile languages, especially those with few speakers and little cultural relevance for young people. Like insect species in the Amazon, languages are dying out. In a widely quoted 1992 article in Language magazine, Michael Krauss asserted that the 21st century would see “the death or doom of 90 per cent of mankind’s languages.” Included among the endangered, Krauss suggested, are 56 of Canada’s 60 First Nations languages.

I love English, its complexity and beauty, its bewildering fusion of sources, its rich array of dialects and variations. But, in the global context, I feel obliged to regard it as something like the cockroach: an insidious, hardy beast, it will survive disasters that may destroy weaker species. Actually, the analogy is incomplete: this particular cockroach not only survives plague and disaster, but causes them, too. We could characterize English, then, as a cockroach that excretes CFCs.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for those “weaker” species. The forces of language decimation are being opposed. In Alberta and around the world, the languages are fighting back. Recently, I was gratified to find myself on the front line of that battle. Well, not exactly the front line—my position might be more accurately described as the canteen or the hospital  tent. Nonetheless, I was able to meet and assist some of the language warriors.

In November 2005, I taught a professional development class at the University of Calgary’s Language Research Centre. The subject: how to teach reading and writing to second-language students. My class consisted of teachers from community centres and elementary schools. They were not English instructors—they taught their own first languages: Bulgarian, Japanese, Cantonese, Polish, Spanish, Amharic, Filipino and Luwo, a Sudanese language. They came from countries as far flung as Ethiopia and Uruguay. Most of their students were children from their own immigrant communities. They were trying to keep their languages alive in Alberta.

So, over four chilly and dark Thursday evenings, at the  end of the workday, when their thoughts were surely veering toward home and family and supper, this affable group of eight descended upon a classroom at the south end of the university campus to spend two and a half hours with me. The ground outside was turning frosty, chubby white rabbits gnawed at the campus lawns, and students flocked the nearby student centre for boisterous evening concerts by the likes of the Dropkick Murphys. It didn’t seem like the ideal time or place to roll up one’s sleeves and delve into pedagogy.

Yet here my students were, ready and eager. They told me there was no financial benefit to completing the full slate of professional development courses of which mine was one component. Nor would they receive a degree or significant diploma (though meetings had been held to address this issue). They just wanted to get better at teaching.

The classroom was capacious, with conference tables, a whiteboard, a big retractable movie screen, a video projector and all kinds of high-tech options I didn’t use. As a fellow teacher had warned me, many of our students taught for underfunded community programs. They couldn’t be expected to adopt techniques that relied on DVD and PowerPoint. Instead, our tables were strewn with pieces of construction paper, illustrations xeroxed from children’s books, photos cut from glossy magazines, Scrabble tiles, toys.

The course was part of a professional development program initiated by the Southern Alberta Heritage Languages Association (SAHLA), which describes itself as “a non-profit umbrella organization whose mission is to  lead,  promote  and provide resources for the promotion of international languages and cultural education.” Financed mainly by casino fundraising, membership dues and some assistance from Alberta Education, SAHLA provides a wide range of language services. It translates documents, holds conferences, develops curricula for language schools, and offers to hook you up with a course in almost any language you’d like to learn. A dizzying range, from Amharic to Urdu, is taught at 30 community- based language schools in southern Alberta under the SAHLA umbrella. With its northern counterpart, NAHLA, the group accounts for 12,000 language students across the province. And SAHLA offers professional development for heritage language teachers—which is where my class came in.

In keeping with the spirit of SAHLA, a microcosm of happy multiculturalism prevailed in the room, with students working together smoothly and cheerfully. Of course, a language class can be one of those artificially untroubled environments in which participants suspend their everyday concerns and gather for a common purpose. People of all nations pulling together—kind of like the Mir space station, minus the part about being in space.

The job presented a new challenge for me: how could I help people teach languages I knew nothing about? Communicating with one another in English only, how could we work together to improve our skills as teachers of eight different languages?

To my relief, this proved not to be a huge problem. After we discussed each topic, I would demonstrate relevant techniques. I proceeded as if this were an English classroom, with the students playing the role of English students. After the demonstration, we would discuss how the technique might be transposed to other languages. Generally, the students felt it was a simple matter of changing the content while preserving the form.

I’d been particularly concerned about the alphabet barrier.  We did activities in which students put letters together to make words, or found words amid tangles of letters. Would these games be applicable to Japanese or Chinese, where pictograms or ideograms might appear instead of phonetic letters? Apparently the Japanese and Chinese teachers saw no obstacle in translating these activities. As supporters of multilingualism would happily point out, these barriers are often less daunting than we think.

Although their goal was to learn better teaching techniques, my students were also eager to talk about English acquisition. When we practised activities as if we were in fact an English class, the students diligently took notes, and were delighted with any English vocabulary they picked up in the process.

Some wanted advice about English exams they were going to write. The Sudanese student had studied nursing in her home country, but the civil war forced her to leave. Now, having come to Canada and started a family, she hopes to resume her education, but this means earning a high score on the nefariously tricky TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which I would defy any native speaker to ace.

My student’s plight offers a sobering glimpse of life in a turbulent region. War is not an obstacle facing your typical Canadian scholar. A nursing student here will not likely become a refugee before completing her degree.

It also reminds me of other immigrants who have faced daunting exams, and raises questions about Canada’s stance toward its incoming students and professionals.

In Ottawa, I helped prepare a Chinese nurse for the TOEIC. If she achieved a high enough score, she could improve her employment prospects in Canada. Her written English was superb. Her knowledge of grammar would put most Canadians to shame. But she hadn’t quite achieved that elusive test score. Surely, I mused, most nurses in Canada would score lower on the test than she had. The TOEIC’s that tough.

In fact, another of my Ottawa students was a civil servant who wanted to improve her official English proficiency rating. Being from Laos, she had no difficulty with French, but was just shy of hitting the top English tier. She brought in stacks of sample government tests in multiple-choice format. The questions were real hair-splitters. Proper grammar seemed to trump natural speech: I seem to recall one question in which the correct answer was “It is I” (grammatically faithful), and an incorrect choice was “It’s me” (which most of us are far more likely to say).

It makes sense that language proficiency is required for certain jobs—you want the ER doctor to understand your complaint when you’re wheeled in on a stretcher. But it’s unwise to leave our human resources untapped. Rather than holding back nurses on account of their English or barring students from school until they pass a fiendish exam, what if we drop the language requirements for professionals who work exclusively with clients who share their native language? A Chinese doctor in a Chinese-Canadian clinic would never need to craft a sentence such as, “It is I whom you wish to consult.” And the patient who speaks poor English may be more at ease, and thus receive better care, with a doctor from the same background. Again, our society may be strengthened by embracing multilingualism.

It  seems paradoxical: a nation fragmented by language is  in fact more whole. But this is the crux of the multilingual ideal. According to Michael Gretton, co-ordinator of SAHLA, multilingualism creates “social cohesion, cultural understanding, racial harmony and civic participation. It strengthens us as a society on many different levels—social, cultural, creative, economic. By learning languages spoken by others, we gain a tremendous insight and access to knowledge… (and) respect others of diverse backgrounds.”

A Chinese doctor in a Chinese-Canadian clinic would never need to craft a sentence such as, “It is I whom you wish to consult.”

This jibes with my own experience as a teacher of English and student of French. Language learning is like theatre: it’s one thing to study Hamlet in a classroom, but if you play the brooding Dane in a stage production, you’ll know the work more intimately, from the inside out.

Gretton adds that the heritage language movement often reaches children who would otherwise be at risk of cultural alienation and its attendant hazards. “It’s really helping build the self-esteem of young people… helping to build their identity and self-confidence.”

Apparently the provincial government agrees. The 2006/07 school year will usher in the first phase of a new language program: Grade 4 students spend 30 minutes a day studying a language other than English and French. This requirement will be phased in for a higher grade each year, until, by 2011/12, all students from Grades 4 to 9 will be studying a language other than English or French (the course will remain optional for students in the top three grades). Any non-official language can be taught; instructors are encouraged to develop courses specific to their communities’ needs.

The government’s motives, however, may have less to do with saving imperiled languages than with the lure of lucre. Alberta Education’s  literature on the topic touts the trade advantage  of a multilingual population. SAHLA was one of the groups that banded together to lobby the government for the language program, and according to Gretton, “it was the economic argument that won the day with the Alberta government.”

By nationwide standards, Alberta is not a hotbed of multilingualism. On the 2001 census, almost 81 per cent of Albertans chose “English only” as their “language first learned and still understood.” Next door in BC, only 73 per cent of residents chose “English only,” while in Ontario the percentage was 70.6. The “other languages” category accounts for only 16.9 per cent of Albertans, versus a quarter of British Columbians and Ontarians. But with around 17,000 people immigrating to Alberta annually, the linguistic landscape may shift significantly.

The immigrants in my class expressed a dual desire: on one hand, to participate fully in Canadian life; on the other, to foster the traditions of their homelands. (Of course, this was a rather exceptional data sample, consisting entirely of volunteers who were donating their time and expertise.) They wanted two things from me as a teacher: an improvement of their own teaching, but also, on the side, a little bit of help with English. They wanted to fit in.

In other words, these were exemplars of multicultural Canada, striving to keep their mosaic tiles bright and distinct, but willing to subsume those tiles in the larger picture.

I too am new to Alberta. My own brand of Alberta culture shock was very mild, consisting mainly of finding the people friendly, the air dry and the political vibe conservative. One Albertan trait I’ve noticed is a propensity for chatting to strangers on public transit.

Which brings us back to that January afternoon on a crowded C-Train. I had found myself beside a friendly, middle-aged construction worker who struck up conversation out of the blue, giving me the lowdown on which job sites he tried to avoid and why.

That’s when the driver tried to get out of her cab to fix a malfunction, prompting my neighbour to suggest, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that someone with poor English was at the root of the problem. And it turns out he was wrong. On a deeper level too, it seems he betrayed a flawed perspective. Language diversity need not breed chaos. The efforts of my students, and hundreds of others like them, just might strengthen the weave of our society.

I don’t want to pin a world view on my fellow passenger. Maybe he likes to live among a host of languages. I don’t know; I didn’t ask. I let the loudest voice ring out uncontested. Fortunately, my strain of laziness—or cowardice—does not inhibit everyone. In the arena of language, hundreds of voices are answering back.

Peter Norman is the associate editor of Alberta Views.


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