BUILDING BRIDGES: Offence taken, as would-be linguists struggle to get by

Learning another language as an adult is another beast

Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language. –H. Jackson Brown.

According to the Oxford Royale Academy in the U.K., English is a strong contender for World’s Most Difficult Language. Thankfully, I learned it when I was really young and I have parents who also grew up speaking English at school.

But learning another language as an adult is a different beast.

I’m currently experiencing this as I work my way through a Beginner’s Spanish course by CD. I take a half an hour every morning to listen to and repeat Spanish phrases and verb conjugations, trying to keep straight the various tenses while building vocabulary.

I have been doing this since July and more regularly since the kids have been back at school.

And I think I am doing a bang-up job… until I listen to a native speaker.

I have a new friend at my daughter’s preschool. She is Venezuelan-Canadian and, I will admit, I purposely introduced myself to her when I overheard her speaking Spanish to her daughter.

I was excited to have someone to chat with every morning while waiting for preschool to open; I imagined that this practice would solidify all the material filed away in my brain.

Let’s just say the experience was like one I had after graduating from high school – with straight As through six years of French, including Advanced Placement French in Grade 12 – and I was trying to buy a book in Montreal on a family vacation.

Combien d’argent pour cette livre?” I asked, ready to show off my third language.

I might have caught the price of the book but the paragraph that followed went way above my head.

Kind of discouraging.

So, I have empathy for newcomers to Canada who don’t speak English. Unfortunately, I don’t always see this empathy from others and it infuriates me.

Obviously, knowing English would make life easier for most new immigrants. But learning it is easier said than done.

According to Ritu Sundaram, an ESL teacher in Surrey, her students are “adults who are often well-educated in their countries of origin. Many speak three or four other languages. Some have also experienced trauma and on top of their displacement now have to figure out schooling, housing, and navigating systems like the banks.

“Even simple things like grocery shopping – things we take for granted as being easy – are stressful events with language practice required for the task.”

Sundaram goes on to say that the majority of her students study nine hours a week in the evenings, after putting in full days at work.

When I was in high school in Richmond, the newsletters we were to take home to our parents were printed in both English and Mandarin. This created an uproar among students and parents alike.

One friend slammed one of the newsletters down on her desk and angrily proclaimed that everyone in Canada should learn English.

And what about in the meantime? Parents should just not be allowed to know what is happening at school?

A recent conversation with a friend of mine whose children are currently enrolled in the Surrey School District revealed that there is still anger and tension at PAC meetings surrounding the language ‘issue.’

Just the other day at the soccer pitch, a coach was giving commands in Punjabi to his all-Punjabi team. This got under the skin of a couple of parents, and I caught bits of their frustration. They were upset because they didn’t know what he was saying.

The thing is, he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to his players who did understand.

When you want to be efficient and effective, what flies off your tongue will always be the language you primarily speak.

Even if I get to be completely fluent in Spanish to the point where I can converse with native speakers, if I am coaching a soccer team that can understand English, that is absolutely the language I will use.

We need to stop being offended by other languages and think about the people behind them – their stories, what they have been through, their current journey and the fact that it is quite impressive to know more than one language and still be striving to learn more.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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