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More Than Words Photographs by Aaron Vincent Elkaim.

More Than Words

Canada's education system isn’t designed to help second-generation children retain non-official languages. Chantal Braganza on why losing a mother tongue is akin to losing a part of yourself.

THERE’S A SAYING my mother used to bark out in exasperation when I’d purposely hide from her in department stores as a kid, or when my brother would spit out the peas in his rice. “Que coraje me da con tigo!” It means “I’m angry with you,” but coraje can translate to both irritation and courage in English, so I’d sometimes purposely flip it and pretend my mother was asking for the courage to parent a wandering brat and a relentlessly picky eater. Many of my recollections before the age of ten are like this—a Spanglish mix of conversations, the meanings of which shift slightly depending on what words I think might have been used, or the time and place in which I’m remembering.

If memory itself is a type of translation—a reassembly of information that’s prone to contextual influence and is, by nature, imperfect—then for people who grew up in more than one language it’s a translation twice over. Psychology studies suggest this puts bilinguals at an advantage for things such as short-term memory, but sometimes, when dredging up moments from long ago, it gets a little more complicated. What language was used at the time of the event, and in what language are you remembering it now? 

Most of my memories are in English, and when it comes to instances of speaking to my mother’s side of the family, the more recent ones are often of embarrassment. Close to Christmas in December 2002, my great aunt tried to teach me how to make a Mexican trifle of cookies tucked into layers of lime custard. It should have been easy enough to pull off, but I was too embarrassed to ask her to translate words such as “teaspoon” while she cooked. When I tried to make the recipe on my own a year later, the trifle petrified into a sandy brick of biscuits that smelled like floor cleanser. Apparently, the ratio of cream to biscuit had gotten lost in lack-of-translation. That Christmas, we ate a slab of Mr. Clean-flavoured pablum for dessert. My mother was less worried about the taste and more concerned that my grandmother would make yet another comment about how her grandchildren were losing a part of who they were.

Particularly in major census metropolitan areas such as Vancouver and Montreal, or in Toronto, near where I grew up, there are hundreds of thousands of people whose first words were from over two hundred languages that weren’t English or French. In 2011, 20.6 percent of the Canadian population (about 6.1 million people) reported having a non-official mother tongue. Over 17 percent reported speaking at least two languages at home. While this is a diversity to celebrate, what these numbers don’t express is what often happens to the children and grandchildren of that 20.6 percent.

A Toronto study in the early nineties found that Portuguese home language use in young children dropped off by nearly two-thirds between the ages of four and six. A 2006 survey of immigrant populations in southern California found that by the second-and-a-half generation, rarely more than 6 percent of people retained languages such as Filipino, Vietnamese or Korean. Research across the United States, Canada and other migrant-rich countries quantifies what plenty of second-gens such as myself feel every day: the loss of a once-fluent language.

Sylvia Nowak, a digital specialist at Plan Canada, uses Google Translate to read and reply to emails from cousins in Poland. It’s not that she doesn’t understand Polish—it’s what her family has spoken since they moved to Canada in the mid-eighties—but over time her relationship with the language has changed. She started Catholic school in a suburb of Toronto, switched to French immersion, grew in and out of friendships with kids of the same background and stopped going to Saturday Polish lessons. Now, she could tell you what’s on the menu at a restaurant in Kraków, but probably couldn’t order. “Once it comes to me having to verbalize anything, I go blank,” she says.

Fawn Fritzen is fluent in French, English and German, but not the Mandarin she spoke exclusively as a child in Thunder Bay, Ontario, before starting school. Now a musician based out of Whitehorse, Yukon, she’s tried teaching her daughters Mandarin, but has found it difficult.

When we lose a language, we don’t just lose the opportunity to pass it on to future generations. “I’ve often wondered if some of my early childhood memories are locked up because I’ve lost some of the language,” Fritzen says. The last timeI spoke to my grandmother, by phone, I needed to rehearse lines in my head beforehand. Despite countless Saturdays of Spanish school, I’ve lost my Spanish, word by word, until I feel like an impostor in my own language. Now, it feels strange to say things like te amo, I love you, to my grandmother, not because I don’t mean it but because the words feel like a sweater that no longer fits.

Multi-generational language loss (or attrition, in linguist parlance) is easy to accept as a somewhat unfortunate side effect of a rapidly diversifying national population that still, one way or another, needs to communicate. But it is also, in part, a consequence of a structural gap our educational policy system isn’t yet fully equipped to address.

CONSTANTINE IOANNOU, executive director of the International Languages Educators’ Association (ILEA) in Ontario and program director for international projects at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, often gets invited to speak at conferences in Europe, where multilingual education has been a policy concern since the establishment of the European Union (EU). “I think that Canada’s become very complacent with its focus on language education, even though we’ve been leaders in this field,” says Ioannou. “I think we tried, in the age of multiculturalism, to value and get to know about other people’s cultures and so on, but it was certainly more of an exhibit-type of appreciation rather than something on a deeper level.”

The country was once seen internationally as a trailblazer for what was possible in bilingual schooling. Canada adopted the Official Languages Act in 1969, kick-starting an era of guaranteed minority language educational rights in French. A few years after the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy of Canada was adopted, education ministries began setting up provincial heritage language programs that resulted in many of the after-school programs you see today: thirty to forty-five minutes of class time added to a regular school day to study Italian, for example, or class time after school, or a few hours on Saturdays. In 1991, three years after the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law, the federal government adopted legislation that would have seen the funding and construction of a national institute that could co-ordinate and support the teaching of non-official languages nationwide. But according to Jim Cummins, an Ontario Institute for Studies in Education professor emeritus who has studied language acquisition and educational policy since the early 1970s, the institute never materialized after funding problems in the early 1990s.

In 2010, Liberal British Columbia Senator Mobina Jaffer worked with the Canadian Languages Association to draft a proposal for a national languages strategy that would revive the ethos of the Canadian Heritage Languages Institute Act. Since its presentation in 2011 it’s gone nowhere, and though she’s hoping to reintroduce it after the next election, Jaffer (who herself has picked up six languages between her lives in Uganda, England and Canada) isn’t particularly hopeful about the environment in which she’s been pushing for this legislation.

“When governments don’t put resources into emphasizing language learning, we lose a lot. Especially when it comes to aboriginal languages,” she says, in reference to the nearly eighty-seven languages that, in 2010, UNESCO identified as vulnerable, endangered or extinct. “When you lose a language, you lose its people.”

THE EARLY LEARNING CENTRE (ELC) at Ryerson University in Toronto looks like any daycare you’d immediately bring to mind: raised sandboxes, oversized wooden blocks, fingerprint paintings stuck to the wall with Blu Tack. As a lab school for teacher training and research, though, there are some small differences, from the cameras built into the ceiling for observational studies to its playground, which is tucked in the corner of a downtown university campus.

One afternoon in 2007, while reading a story to an ELC preschool class, Roma Chumak-Horbatsch noticed a three-year-old girl trying to comfort a crying newcomer to the group. Rather than interrupt them, Chumak-Horbatsch watched as Ayten, a native speaker of Turkish, convinced Li, who only spoke Mandarin, to join the reading circle with a mix of gestures and hugs. As an associate professor and researcher of early childhood linguistics at the school, the exchange intrigued her. “I wondered about Ayten’s and Li’s skills in their home languages,” she wrote of the experience in 2013. “Why was Li anxious and silent?”

Chumak-Horbatsch had experienced some of that anxiety herself when she started elementary school in 1950s’ Toronto and spoke only Ukrainian. “I remember sitting in a circle watching everyone talk and laugh,” she says. “I waited for recess knowing that once outside I would see my older brothers, speak my native language and feel safe.” She saw it again as a teacher in the seventies, with newly landed Portuguese students in her kindergarten classes.

“Overall, teachers are unprepared and ill-equipped to work with children who arrive with little or no proficiency in the classroom language,” she says. In places such as the Greater Toronto Area, student populations living with more than one language have become mainstream. After surveying children in 190 childcare centres across Toronto in 2010, Chumak-Horbatsch found that 43 percent of respondents primarily spoke a language other than English or French at home. Despite this, she kept bumping up against two troubling trends: that professional development resources available to non-specialist teachers in these classroom environments were mostly limited to spin-off or one-day workshops, and that the parents of much of that 43 percent were still governed by a lingering, long-disproven idea that mixing languages during early school years was a setback to progressing in English.

Unlike those who have a working knowledge of English or French to start, this puts English Language Learner (ELL) students at a disadvantage. For every report that states second-generation immigrants enter university at higher rates than primary English speakers, as a 2013 International Migration Review study suggested was the case in British Columbia, there are many more to prove that once a student is identified as ELL in high school (and especially if the student is from an underprivileged background) his or her chance at graduating high school in the first place plummets.

Many provincial curriculum documents today, Chumak-Horbatsch says, will nod to the importance of learning how to work with multilingual students in broad statements. “It leaves teachers asking ‘How do I do this?’” says OISE professor emeritus Jim Cummins. He says the toolkit English as a Second Language (ESL) specialists pull from every day (instructing visually, with paraphrasing, building lessons into group-based projects) would be of just as much use to regular subject teachers. “It’s not enough for ESL teachers only to know how to do this, because these kids are being taught by content teachers in high school. For example, math, science and history teachers need to know how to do this also.”

In 2013 Chumak-Horbatsch published Linguistically Appropriate Practice, part resource guide, part synthesis of her years of research at Ryerson’s Early Learning Centre. In the absence of any concrete ministry guides, it lays out ways for elementary school teachers to acknowledge and encourage home languages in students without necessarily being fluent in the language themselves. Chumak-Horbatsch’s practices include taking active stock of who speaks what in a classroom; pulling word examples from those languages into literacy, music and math activities; and engaging with parents about what some of this in-class and at-home work might look like.

Piloted between 2013 and 2014 as a school-wide policy at the Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in northern Toronto (one of Canada’s largest all-day, all-kindergarten schools), it’s also been picked up in individual schools in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Norway and Japan. The point of the practice is to take an active interest in how second languages shape a young child’s understanding and identity.

MY MOTHER GREW UP speaking Spanish in Puerto Vallarta, off the west coast of Mexico, before moving to Canada in the early eighties after marrying my father. Though he was born in Mombasa and raised, in Nairobi and London, by parents who spoke English, Konkani, Swahili and Portuguese, thanks in part to the aggressive consistency of colonial schooling, he’d only ever spoken what he and expat friends will sometimes jokingly call the Queen’s English. My mother, whom he met in a restaurant while on vacation in Mexico, was perhaps his first real incentive to learn another language. And though she’d been studying English for university programs beforehand, their relationship certainly didn’t hurt my mother’s motives, either; for two years before they got married, she’d pay a private tutor to get her conversation skills up to par.

It’s hard to know how many private lessons or newcomer ESL classes she’d have needed to take before family friends’ kids stopped innocently referring to her as “the lady who doesn’t speak English” or co-workers stopped speaking to her in slow, loud voices when she asked where the new office photocopier was installed. But eventually both did, despite the fact that she never enrolled in any. The vestigial remnants of her once-sharp accent—she slows down words with “th” and has a honey-thick way of pronouncing “w”—are quirks I’ve keenly searched out in others. The way my Hong Kong-born piano teacher excitedly used to say “Is it?” instead of “Really?” or my Italian grandmother-in-law will ask me to “open the lights.”

While my mother may have had a romantic head start, learning an official language is a pragmatic necessity for nearly everyone who moves here: as of 2011, just under 2 percent of the Canadian population spoke neither English nor French. Doing so at an academic level, or maintaining a first language in something that resembles one, is a different process altogether.

"All of the research that's out there shows that in teaching second language, bilingual programs work—but it's largely illegal in Ontario to have these kinds of programs," says Cummins. Western provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC have ministry provisions that allow for languages other than English or French to be taught in a fifty-fifty setting—but their comprehensiveness differs from board to board. In provinces such as Ontario, language immersion programs are usually offered only in French and English (or their respective sign language systems), and certain aboriginal languages are taught as subjects. When this policy was revisited with the 1994 Royal Commission on Learning in Ontario, the ministry encouraged the support of after-school and secondary-school subject programs but maintained status quo on immersion.

“It was basically saying, ‘We’re aware of the bilingual programs out west, but we’re not prepared to go in that direction, because a) we have so many languages in Ontario and we don’t want to get flooded with requests to have bilingual programs in multiple languages and b) kids need to learn English,’ essentially,” says Cummins. “It’s an issue that I think has been easy for politicians to still stand on, because there isn’t any real sustained pressure from communities in Ontario to have bilingual programs here.”

The idea of educating students in non-official language immersion is something of a touchy subject in many crossroads countries. It has been a deeply contested topic in the United States for years when it comes to Spanish, for example, where it received hard political push-back despite the US’s status as the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. “There is no Americano dream,” political scientist Samuel P. Huntington notoriously wrote in his 2004 book, Who Are We? “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”

Stephen Krashen, a University of Southern California professor emeritus of education, spent much of the late nineties and early 2000s advocating against such attitudes when California enacted Proposition 227 in 1998, legislation meant to dismantle state support for bilingual education. “By far the biggest frustration,and in my opinion the reason bilingual education lost, is that we never succeeded in informing the public about it,” he says. “The public was—and probably still is—convinced that bilingual education is all-Spanish, and that it doesn't work." 

In the seventeen years since, it seems, attitudes may have changed. When State Senator Ricardo Lara proposed legislation to repeal the act in early 2014, it passed assembly and senate with at least 67 percent support in each vote.

DESPITE THE MANY Larousse dictionaries and grammar workbooks my dad has picked up over the years, he’s never become fluent in Spanish. (Though he's also never been afraid to train-wreck his way through a conversation just to be friendly—courage I no longer have.) Between this, work and fewer visits form family in Mexico, speaking Spanish in our housefold evolved from simply how we lived to a conscious choice. 

My mother began to notice things that troubled her. There was my brother’s heightened reluctance to get on the phone when my aunt Mari called to speak to her favourite nephew. There was the passing comment I made after my second-grade teachers asked whether my mother and I spoke any other languages at home. “Of course we speak English here,” I’d told my mother later. “You speak English!” (I think the emphasis might have hurt her a little more than she’d admit.)

When I was about eight, my mother found a flyer on my elementary school’s bulletin board advertising Saturday heritage language classes in a public school across town. In a bid to keep us speaking Spanish and to make at least a friend or two who did the same, she signed us up immediately.

Every Saturday morning for just over four years, my parents would drag my brother and me out of bed at seven, drive out to an elementary school on the other side of town, put a lunch box in our hands and send us off to recite grammar and read words off flash cards for three to four hours. Some days, a television was rolled in to watch movies. On others, we’d dress up in traditional clothing from our parents’ home countries and stage embarrassingly earnest international pageants in the gym. In the early nineties this is what extended language education looked like, and as far as retention goes it wasn’t very effective.

Subject-of-study language programs are similar to the forty minutes of French you may have taken in primary school every day. While their length and availability differs from province to province, some structural similarities make them less than ideal for learning or maintaining a fluent language. After-school or weekend programs in Ontario, for example, often compound grade levels for efficiency—a single class may run from grades four to eight—and the resources housed in host schools usually aren’t available to its participants.

For students starting from close to scratch, there’s also the obstacle of the classroom itself. “Teaching a language is probably the most artificial thing you can do, in the context of a classroom,” says Luca Buiani, ILEA chair and program supervisor for international languages at the York Catholic District School Board in Toronto. “It turns a language into a subject. In doing that, the setting can easily turn into learning about something, and not learning how to live in something.”

He likens the process to learning how to play a piano without ever touching the instrument. “If you know what each of the keys are called, and you know how to push them, and you know how they relate to little scribbles on a piece of paper, you cannot really say that you know how to play the piano.”

At the moment, says Buiani, individual school boards in Ontario have been acknowledging these setbacks, especially when it comes to curriculum development. In 2008 the province began considering implementing the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in its French curricula. An EU-developed set of teaching and evaluation standards, CEFR shifts the subject of language from rote to functional learning. Its ethos: forget grading based on grammar and vocabulary alone.

Knowing the right words, for example, won’t help if you’re not comfortable enough to engage with the ideas or emotions they express. Two years after I stopped going to Spanish classes, I visited Puerto Vallarta with my family for March break. My cousin Adriana convinced my mother to let me dye my hair for the first time. I was thirteen and beyond thrilled. When Adriana and I got to the salon, I surprised myself with how difficult it was to describe what I wanted in Spanish, and instead of Mi Reflejo-era Christina Aguilera highlights (again, I was thirteen), I came home with a bee-striped head of sickly, greenish-yellow locks.

Over a decade later, while travelling just south of Playa del Carmen, I over-heard two shopkeepers make some sordid, racist comments about what they’d like to do to the two visibly Chinese friends I was with. I knew the vocabulary in theory, but I couldn’t say anything. I left confused and furious at those men for being gross pigs and at myself for being utterly unable to get out the words.

FROM STUDIES that have found multilingual brains are more resistant to the effects of age-related dementia to CEO-penned op-eds that insist learning Cantonese and Arabic is essential to getting anywhere in your career, oft-touted cases for making language education more accessible conclude that it’s both a brain and economy booster.

But how depressing would it be if these were the only reasons to learn, or maintain, another language? Buiani, for example, has always found the underlying premise of the biblical Tower of Babel myth—that the fragmentation of language was a curse for humanity—rather odd. “A variety of languages means a variety of ways of seeing the world,” he says.“It’s the best way of getting towards real understanding and real diversity.”

Fawn Fritzen does have a few Mandarin-specific memories of her childhood. She’d listen to her mother sing while washing the dishes. A couple of years ago, she was asked to perform at a New Year’s concert for the Chinese Canadian Association of Yukon. “It’s such a tonal language,” says Fritzen. “You don’t have the same inflections when you’re singing, because you’re following a melody.”

She picked “Green Island Serenade,” a popular ballad and her mother’s favourite, and scoured YouTube for covers. She had fluent friends read and translate the lyrics to her in English so there wasn’t any confusion over what she was singing about: a classic love song inflected with the politics of Taiwanese history. “It’s hard to sing words that don’t have any meaning,” she says. The performance went over so well that she’s been invited to perform at events since.

When I think about what I’d like to get out of re-learning Spanish, as I’ve recently been trying to do, I think of getting on the phone with my grandmotherand asking her, in my own words, what her life has been like since we last truly spoke with each other almost fourteen years ago.

I also think of the spontaneous joy that comes from knowing the right words at the right time. A little over a year ago, I went to visit a friend and her young children, both toddlers raised in a bilingual household. Her son, then three years old, was tossing toys around in his living room, spelling out their names, all in English. I noticed one lying alone on the floor in the kitchen, a room away, and jumped up to grab it. “Es esta una jirafa?” I asked him. “Is this a giraffe?” He looked at me with an expression of acknowledgement that I’ll never forget: a slow, half-shy smile as if to say, “You too?” that tipped into a chatty string of Spanglish that sounded all too familiar. 


Correction: The original article stated that Whitehorse is located in the Northwest Territories. It is actually in the Yukon. The article also incorrectly referred to Fawn Fritzen as Dawn Fritzen. Maisonneuve regrets the errors. 

Article updated on January 10, 2016.