English Doesn’t Excuse Ignorance

By Jason Menard

After participating in a global conference call, I have come to the conclusion that I am an ignoramus. The problem is that I can only say that in two languages. While I’m not alone in this situation, we, as a society, continue to revel in our ignorance instead of embracing a chance to improve our stature.

I had the pleasure of participating in a conference call with colleagues around the world, from Russia to Venezuela and all points in between. And guess what language it was in? That’s right – English.

As I sat through the meeting, chatting convivially with my cohorts in my mother tongue, it slowly dawned upon me that they were conversing with a dexterity and alacrity of which I could only dream. They were laughing, joking, and speaking in confident tones, navigating the English language – occasionally in a more cumbersome manner than normal, but still in a way that puts us to shame.

As I listened to these people who speak two, three, even more languages with confidence, I began to feel shame. While I’m fluent in French, and I can also understand a fair bit of Spanish and Portuguese, I felt shame about the way that we look at language in this country.

Whereas other countries look at multilingualism as a normal part of their everyday life, many of us continue to look at bilingualism as an imposition. Instead of embracing the opportunity that learning a new language offers us, we close our minds and assume that, simply because we don’t encounter a language in our day-to-day lives, we don’t need to learn it.

We couldn’t be more wrong. While we may not utter the phrase “Speak White,” we live it by our insistence that the world must come to us, instead of us meeting the world half-way. And in any language, actions speak louder than words.

This insular attitude persists, even in the reaction to our school curriculum. Reading through the literature that my son brought home with him from his first day of school, there was a note explaining why French was being taught in the schools. The fact that some need an explanation as to why one of Canada’s two official languages is being taught to Canadian students should be an embarrassment.

Already our children don’t receive enough language training. The level of language education is inadequate and leaves our students unprepared when confronted with an actual French speaker. In high school, graduation requires only two credits in French. And yet still people feel this is to onerous.

Yes, but there may be those of you who will never travel outside of English-speaking countries. So why should you learn French? Simple. It helps your English.

I like to consider myself the perfect test case. All though my elementary school and into high school, English grammar was an afterthought. With the focus on reading comprehension and displaying the ability to express your understanding of the reading, not enough focus was placed on the basics of language construction. We could understand the paragraph, but were unable to craft a sentence.

My English was passable, but certainly not eloquent in my youth. I could express myself well verbally and was able to string a sentence together. But I wasn’t cogniscent of the how’s and why’s of language. That came later on in my life, when I started taking Latin and French at higher levels.

There I learned how a sentence is constructed. There I learned the basic grammar rules that allow language to escape its pedestrian roots and literally fly off the pages. It was through learning about various clauses, tenses, and agreements in French and Latin that I was able to apply that knowledge to my English speaking and writing, and understand the correlation.

Forget the fact that languages allow us to understand each other better. Forget the fact that an appreciation for someone’s mother tongue enables us to bridge cultural and physical gaps. The greatest gift that learning another language has to offer is the ability to improve the way we speak our own.

This world is shrinking. Even during my not-so-lengthy stay on this planet to date, I’ve seen a marked shift in the diversification of Canadian society. While our canvas was fairly monochrome in the past, now the image is increasingly being enriched by a multitude of different colours, swirling together to create a cultural mosaic that’s striking in its beauty. The Internet has rendered the farthest corners of the world just a click away. And yet we continue to resist embracing diversity in language.

The world is literally at our doorstep. The question is, why do we continue to bar the door? And why are we afraid of opening it to a world of new experiences and self-improvement?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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