I spent last weekend in Toronto, crashing a conference that several friends were presenting at. It wasn't a huge conference, but it was an international one--and unlike most international conferences I've attended, it was multilingual: approximately one third of the panels were in French and the rest in English.
This fact barely registered on me when I first skimmed the program, and since the panels were segregated by language I didn't expect to have much interaction with the francophone attendees. Whatever, I thought. It's Canada. I guess that's what they do.
But in fact, all the conference-goers took coffee and cookies in the same entrance hall and we all attended the same plenary talks, and when people squeezed past or apologized for bumping into me they were as likely to say "merci!" or "pardon!" as "thanks" or "excuse me." The chair introducing one of the plenary speakers gave his opening remarks half in French and half in English (not translating: just switching languages midway through), and one speaker on a plenary panel did something similar, occasionally switching to French for a few sentences for emphasis.
It was a disorienting, strange, and rather wonderful experience, and one I'm pretty sure I've never had before. Whether at home or abroad, I'm used to being in a place where one language is the dominant one, and the other language or languages are used for private or domestic conversations: tourists talking to each other, immigrant parents murmuring to their children. But being somewhere that two languages were treated equally, and where no need for translation was assumed, was something new.
Now, I know that the politics of language are touchy in Canada, and that it's not a perfect bilingual paradise. Nevertheless, as foreign language departments are being eliminated in this country, it's hard not to look with longing toward a neighbor country that seems, at least from the outside, to be valuing language study in a way we do not.
And I should 'fess up: although I work in a period and on authors who are ferociously multilingual--and although my grad program required three foreign languages--French is the only foreign language I have any real claim to being able to speak or understand; I took it throughout high school and for a couple of years in college, but since I don't need it for my work, it's atrophied terribly. I have adequate reading knowledge of Italian, can work v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y through Latin (albeit with lots of errors), and a year's worth of ancient Greek in college left me with the ability to pronounce ANY WORD I SEE that's written in Greek characters (although I can no longer understand a line of it, if ever I could).
I have colleagues and friends with a serious command of multiple languages, and I wish I were among them. As it is, I sometimes think that I and many more academics than are willing to admit it are the PhD-holding equivalent of the kids who flounder through a year of college-level foreign language study, fulfill their requirement, and call it a day.