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Lost in translation

Learning a second language should be mandatory

We live in a bilingual country, where, hypothetically, you can go from coast to coast speaking either English or French and have a similar experience.

That’s the theory, anyways, but it isn’t exactly true.

If you walk into a restaurant in Calgary, you would be hard-pressed to find a location in which everyone can comfortably converse with you in both of our nation’s official languages. And, as we all know, the primary language in our western Canadian society is English, with French left forgotten and unused.

Conversely, if you find yourself in Quebec, even if you don’t speak a lick of French, you’ll be better off than a French speaker in the west, regardless of where you are.

So, if we live in a country that is allegedly bilingual, why can only a sliver of the population in Calgary speak fluent French?

The Official Languages Act/Loi sur les languages officielles, is intended to provide equality amongst our nation’s official tongues, with particular regards to the operation of government, administration of justice, and communicating with and providing services to the public.

That’s all well and good. We should strive for equality. However, it’s unfair to claim equality when it simply does not exist. Something has to give: either we strike the languages act from our books, or we, as a country, put more of an emphasis on ensuring everyone is capable of communicating in both official languages.

Because there is certainly no downside to being bilingual.

According to Henri Väänänen, a Finnish native who speaks fluent English, being bilingual opens doors to a multitude of other opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable.

“It allows me to confidently express my views and opinions in other languages,” said Väänänen.

At his school in small-town Finland, Väänänen began learning English in pre-kindergarten. Because of English being a lingua franca, also known as a common language, Väänänen believes his English abilities have allowed him to communicate, build relationships and travel the world.

During his time in Finnish high school, Väänänen applied to go on an exchange program to America, and eventually landed in Texas where he perfected his English communications skills. If you speak to him now, it’s impossible to tell that he is not a native English speaker.

That’s not to say it should be mandatory that we all reach Väänänen’s proficiency level, though it is something to strive for.

Yulia Jang, a business administration student at SAIT and native of Korea, came to Canada for the first time in 2011, before falling in love with Calgary and returning in December 2015 to further her studies at SAIT.

According to Jang, her experience learning English wasn’t as easy as Väänänen’s.

The Korean language’s radically different grammatical and sentence structure, combined with a lack of resources to learn proper English, resulted in a difficult language learning process.

“It was one of the biggest barriers that I had,” said Jang.

Though that didn’t stop her from succeeding.

“The best part [about being bilingual] is I can meet and communicate with various people in the world, than just [in] my own language.

“It benefited me a lot when I looked for a job in Korea,” she said, as her ability to effectively communicate in both Korean and English granted her access to a wider range of information.

Both Väänänen and Jang have had positive experiences as a direct result of their ability to speak multiple languages.

“Translations may not always be accurate. Knowing two or more languages really opens up the world and its possibilities to you,” Väänänen said.

Marja-Liisa Paloniemi, who is also originally from Finland and now resides in Calgary, is a perfect example of the doors bilingualism opens.

Paloniemi moved to Canada after she graduated from high school, as she had friends who lived here.

Between her original move to Canada and now, Paloniemi has spent numerous years throughout different periods of her life living in both countries.

At this stage in her life, Paloniemi spends time visiting her son in Finland and her daughter in The United States.

While she’s in Calgary, she stays connected with her roots through her work as Calgary Finlandia Cultural Association’s Finnish language instructor.

According to her, if you move countries and meet different people, it’s fantastic to have a language in common to communicate in, she said, in Finnish.

What Paloniemi, Väänänen and Jang all agree on, then, is time spent learning another language is time well spent.

They’re all right in this estimation. And Canada should listen to what they have to say about bilingualism’s benefits and make it more readily accessible for Canadians to fluently learn both
official languages.

“If I could go back and talk to 13-year-old me, I would tell myself to study languages even more,” said Väänänen.

“I encourage everyone to learn a foreign language or two because I can guarantee it will pay off in the future.” 

Illustration by Evan Brien

Illustration by Evan Brien

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