The girl on the train (in Morocco) inspired me
“Learning a language is hard to do and therefore good for the brain”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has caused me embarrassment. On the international stage, our PM switches between English and French with such ease that people assume all Canadians speak both official languages fluently. I do not, and I am embarrassed about this.
Recently, I travelled by train from Fes to Rabat. When a young Moroccan woman noticed my Maple Leaf pin, she greeted me in French. I replied in English, and effortlessly, she switched languages. She is fluent in Arabic and French (Morocco’s official languages), English and Spanish.
In Morocco, as in Europe, being multilingual seems normal. However, in North America, where most people have the advantage of speaking English, there is not the same need or eagerness to learn other languages.
That girl on the train should inspire us, especially young Canadians. With their careers ahead of them, speaking more than one language is an asset. According to Ontario’s Ministry of Education, acquiring another language will “increase their competitiveness in an increasingly global job market.”
My nephew’s sons are competitive already. Since birth, my nephew spoke to them in English and their mother spoke French to them. Now, at the age of 13 and 10, they are totally bilingual. In the future, if they want employment with the federal government, they can add bilingual to their resumes. If they want global employment, being bilingual will be an asset. When one becomes the first Matheson PM, like Trudeau, he will switch effortlessly between our official languages.
Of course, being bilingual means more than speaking French and English. Some children have the advantage of learning another language at home. Although they may have little occasion to speak this language outside the home, they are creating a language file for later use.
As a young girl, I listened intently as my Polish grandmother pronounced Polish words and their English translations. I never imagined how useful her lessons would be. Decades later, when I enrolled in a Polish language class, I reopened that file. With these building blocks, I learned to speak Polish, and was able to communicate with my mother-in-law.
My Chinese friend’s young daughter speaks both Mandarin and English. Her parents will definitely enrol her in French Immersion. As immigrant parents, they are not alone. According to Graham Fraser, Canada’s former commissioner of official languages, “Some immersion programs boast a high percentage of children of immigrants, as their parents recognize the value of being able to speak the country’s two official languages.”
Recently, The Spectator highlighted a young professional, Kamel Mahfoundia, owner of Hamilton’s French Confection. Originally from Algeria, this polyglot speaks Arabic, French, Spanish, Catalon, and English.
Learning a second language also helps students to “develop their understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures.” With language learning comes the learning of another culture, its history, customs, religion, food, music, and art. In multicultural Canada, that should be encouraged.
A committee looking into having second-language courses a requirement for Princeton University students notes that “Enhanced language instruction … would give students the tools needed to more fully appreciate a different cultural worldview.” With knowledge comes understanding and hopefully tolerance, both needed in the world today.
That young Moroccan girl inspired me personally. Decades ago, I studied French, but used it infrequently. In Morocco, I tried to open my French file. When a Moroccan replied in English, I was not discouraged. I persisted and was surprised at how much I remembered.
Of course, learning a language is more difficult as you age. Listening to the second-language learners vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party was painful. However, these adults are doing their brain a favour. According to Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a York University psychology professor, “You can do things … to maintain cognitive functions in old age. If something is hard to do, it is good for your brain. Learning a language is hard to do and therefore good for the brain.”
At the Burlington Seniors’ Centre, the more than 100 seniors enrolled in second language classes are not only learning French, Italian, Spanish or Mandarin, but also stimulating their brains. An added bonus is a dose of laughter.
My French has created laughter. On our last day in Marrakesh, my husband and I sat down for breakfast in our riad (guest house). In perfect English, the waiter greeted us with, “Would you like a bowl of the soup the chef made for you last night?” Although surprised, we polite Canadians uttered “yes” in unison.
With the waiter off in the kitchen, we burst out laughing. The night before, my husband gave me a language task to ask Hala, the French-speaking receptionist, for the recipe for harira, the delicious Moroccan soup. Without knowing the French for recipe, I thought Hala got my request when she replied, “Oui.” To Hala’s question about portions, I know I properly pronounced “huit” (8)! Who else would have soup for breakfast?
Now, I am relearning French. Each day, while on the treadmill, I watch French television. For Canadians both young and old, I have found “une bonne recette” (a good recipe) for learning the language.
Hughena Matheson lives in Burlington
The train station in Rabat, Morocco, where even the signs are bilingual — this one in both Arabic and French.