Thursday, October 28, 2010

Polyglot dreams

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.


Miss Self-Important said...

I was also impressed by that same ability to switch between French and English that not only expressed command of both languages, but even a native accent in both, which almost no amount of even fairly intense high school+college language study brings a student. It would be cool to have that kind of language reciprocity here (English speakers sending kids to French-language school and vice versa), but I'm not sure it would be anything more than cool.

Canada has, as a political compromise, decided that these two languages matter. Would the US ever be able to agree on a second official language? I could make a case for at least four. Moreover, in the bilingual setting, your second language is pre-determined, and unless you then go into an academic field where that language happens to be useful (as French conveniently is in the humanities, but, say, Spanish is not), it won't serve the enlightening purpose you imagine in an academic career. Given that, it may sometimes be better to be able to select a more relevant second language early on rather than be bound to whatever national political constraints guide bilingual policy.

Flavia said...


Sure. I don't disagree that it's better to be able to choose one's second language than to be bound to one in particular.

But the privileging of foreign language acquisition strikes me as a good in itself (and it's not as if Americans are fighting in the streets about whether to make Spanish or Mandarin our required second language--if only anyone cared that much!). Learning any foreign language makes others at least somewhat easier to pick up (though the benefits are obviously greater when we're talking about languages from the same family), and tends to make one's native language use stronger, too, since the systematic study of grammar and syntax isn't something we typically do much of.

At any rate, it's awfully hard to know what will turn out to be a "more relevant second language" when you're 10 or 14. If the U.S. educational system did more to promote the study of (any) foreign languages, I wouldn't envy Canada in the least. But until we do, I will.

Pantagruelle said...

As a fluently bilingual Canadian, let me just say that this is completely normal and standard practice for most conferences north of the 49th, and has been for the past 30 years. It all comes down to Trudeau's vision of a bilingual Canada, which then got transformed into a "multicultural" Canada as a way of drowning out the French as one of two founding nations. Nonetheless, most academics have bought into official bilingualism, despite its dubious connections to a much more suspect and ultimately assimilationalist multiculturalism, to the point that you are right in your assessment that "Whatever, It's Canada. I guess that's what they do." On that score, you are completely right.

PS - My word verification on this comment was "patin", which means "skate", an appropriately Canadian verification if ever there was one!

Dr. Koshary said...

Don't feel bad about your language skills, Flavia. It sounds like you are perfectly competent in those languages that you need for your work. (I'm counting reading competency here; some research languages are just that, and no one expects you to bust out with a conversation in Italian in some random coffee hour.) I am sorry to report that more academics than would admit it are not only not much at foreign tongues, but in fact incompetent at essential research languages.

I just wrote a long, long continuation of this comment, until I realized I should just write my own damn post. Behold!

Anonymous said...

If Canada truly wanted to be multi-lingual, it would have Inuit as one of its main language. There are more Inuit people in Canada than native French speakers. There are almost as many Chinese and Japanese in BC as there are Frenchies. The official bi-lingualism is nothing but French snootiness. -- proud son of Alberta parents.

scr said...

I get a kick out of TV5monde programming. Whenever a French Canadian show or movie comes on, they subtitle the entire thing in French. So that, you know, French people can actually understand what the hell they're saying.

Flavia said...

Dr. K: thanks. My language skills, relative to what I need, aren't a scandal. . . but they really ought to be better.

I don't truly need to be fluent (either as a speaker or a reader) in any foreign language, but I very much wish that I were. Perhaps this returns to MSI's point about fluency being cool, but not necessarily more than cool, for those in the academo-liberal complex.

I persist in the belief that, were I to spend three months in either France or Italy, I'd be totally competent (which isn't to say fluent) in either language. But when is this imaginary relocation going to happen? And why does it matter?

Bro: seriously, you don't know how I envy your French education and skillz.

What Now? said...

I once went to a conference in Montreal and had the interesting and slightly disorienting realization that the different languages didn't seem to be racially marked, which was completely different from the experience in my Grad School city, which has one of the greatest diversities of spoken languages in the U.S. I started playing a game as I walked through the city: I'd see people walking toward me and try to decide if they'd be speaking French or English as they walked past me ... and I quickly realized that I had no basis for guessing! A fascinating experience.

michele said...

Proud son of Alberta Parents -

What in the world are you talking about?? Since 2/3 on Montrealers alone identify as francophone (a total population of approximately 1.5 million people) and most estimates of Inuit place them at 40,000 in Canada and no more than 150,000 worldwide, you are full of it. Get some sunscreen.

With comments like yours, I'm ashamed to be an Albertan myself.

Vive le francais!