Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tu parles francais? Bien sur!

I speak 3 languages. Wait--I should probably add a few caveats to that. I am, of course, fluent in English (although recently when I tried to convince a younger cousin that "winningest" was a real word, he told me that I had lost all credibility with him as an English professor). As for the other two languages I have familiarity with--Spanish and French--well, if you plopped me down in the middle of either Mexico or Montreal, I'd probably get by OK. More than OK in Montreal since last time I checked they also speak English there.

And that's the topic of this post. Bilinguialism or more precisely multi-linguialism. Because one of the things that truly impresses me about Toronto (in addition to the plethora of fabulous and diverse ethnic food and their forward thinking environmental policies) is that their signs are in both French and English. And in the suburbs of Markham and Richmond Hill, there are several signs in both English and Chinese characters or English and Arabic or English and Hindi. There really is true linguistic and ethnic-national diversity in Toronto. Perhaps due to the less draconian immigration policies. Perhaps because urban areas tend to attract diverse and multilinguistic communities.

But it's more than just being in an urban area and having people speaking different languages. It's the attitude, at least the official attitude, of Canada's government that privileges dual language fluency, in this case, English and French. All of my Canadian cousins were required to take French classes while in school. I wish we had a similar governmental and educaitonal attitude in the U.S.--and that it started at a young age, like kindergarten. I'm not saying that dual linguistic ability equals tolerance or open-mindedness, but at minimum, a government, a nation-state that affirms the value of multilingualism is a country that acknowledges that they aren't just living in a national bubble--that we are people who desire communication with other nations and communities.

I don't think the U.S. needs to replicate Canada's model of English and Spanish. How about just English plus? English plus a second language--Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, German, Sign language, Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Latin--just fluency in another language, begun at a young age, like 5, and going up through middle or even better high school. That language becomes as important as science. Wouldn't that be a wonderful message to send to people?

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