The girl on the train (in Morocco) in­spired me

“Learn­ing a lan­guage is hard to do and there­fore good for the brain”

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - HUGHENA MATHE­SON

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.

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