The second I stepped onto the plane for my flight from Chicago O’Hare to Montreal, I realized what I was getting myself into.
Perhaps that sounds too negative because it certainly isn’t. I was just shocked to actually hear a difference so quickly between the United States and Canada. The girl sitting next to me was with her family in the seats in front of mine, and whenever they interacted, they spoke French.
I specifically chose Quebec as a study destination because I have been trying to learn French for going on two years. You know how they say that the best time to learn a new language is really early in life, in that critical time of development? Well, they’re probably right on that because it’s been interesting to say the least. I’m not too bad at reading French, but when it comes to speaking or listening, I clam up. I’ve always been a visual learner, and that definitely shows when you try to start a conversation.
This cultural difference didn’t stop on the plane. Into the airport, everything is written in both French and English. Whomever I come across, if they’re native Canadian, they seem to be effortlessly bilingual. They switch between the two languages like nothing. I walk around campus to hear (casually eavesdrop is a better term) on French conversations, but every class I have (besides French obviously) is entirely in English.
And with this immediate realization came another thought: so many people in the United States would feel the exact same way. I at least recognize and understand some French, but most do not, nor any other language beyond English. With the direction that the world is going these days, that isn’t good. The people at the greatest disadvantage are people my age and older, when learning a new language is very difficult.
According to the American Community Survey, more than one in 5 kids over the age of 5 (21%) speak a language other than English at home. These kids receive many benefits for their bilingualism, such as being able to learn new words easily, being able to use information in new way, coming up with solutions to problems, and listening and connecting with others better.
Beyond simply language skills, scientists have found that bilingualism actually improves overall cognitive abilities and potentially preventing dementia in the future. Bilingual people tend to have a heightened sense of their environment that can improve their performances in any memory or mental tests.
I refer back to the rural Midwest a lot, but the culture I grew up around plays an important factor into why some are hesitant about bilingualism. These are the people that say “speak English or leave.” That English is the official language of the United States, and unfamiliar sounds are an equation for disaster. When you don’t have much diversity around you, it’s hard to really envision life where you might not understand the words on signs or in simple exchanges. This people also forget that their ancestors forcefully brought English with them to a New World where Native American tribes already spoke and lived peacefully. Not to mention disease. But that’s beside the point.
That’s why it makes me so angry when people criticize those with broken English, who might be slower to understand and speak in a nonnative tongue, when the critics only know one language to begin with. We all need to walk inside others’ shoes to empathize with others more. Especially when most of the world is already ahead with countries often toting multiple official languages.
Sooner rather than later, Anglo-Americans will be the minority. A wall along the southern border won’t change that. Globalization has been dangerous in the fact that we’re simultaneously more connected and less diverse in the process: according to the BBC, at the current rate of one a fortnight, half our languages will be extinct by the end of the century. Language is a crucial part of humanity. It drives our lives, is a staple in our culture, history, and politics.
There is no excuse for us not to open our minds to new languages. While children might pick up a language easier, it’s never too late to start. The choice just makes sense. The task seems intimidating, but technology (hello, Duolingo) can make it much more approachable. The benefits for yourself and the world around you far surpass any hesitations. Those who refuse to acknowledge anything beyond their own single language will get left behind.
Let’s put on a new pair of shoes. Let’s willingly walk into that unknown terrain. While it’s uncomfortable, it’s a necessary step we cannot avoid much longer. No matter your age or previous knowledge or experience, I encourage everyone to give it a shot.
Through my time in Quebec, I hope I can gain some fluency in my French. I will definitely make some mistakes in there, but it’s a journey I look forward to taking.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie