This morning I read an article about how CBC North reporter, Pauline Pemik, was the first person to interview our new Governor General, Mary Simon. The fascinating part of the story was that she did so in Inuktitut – the indigenous language of the Inuit people. After all that our country’s First Nations have endured in the past several months, the fact that The Queen’s representative in Canada can speak Inuktitut fluently, and is able to do so with a fellow Canadian citizen, made me smile. It made me wish that I knew and understood at least a few words in that intriguing and ancient polysynthetic language.
The multilingual landscape of Canada has always interested me. While our country identifies two official languages, we know there are more than 200 languages spoken in homes, schools, and communities throughout our provinces and territories. It’s a richness that we should all appreciate, if we stop and think about it. Even in our own city of London, it is impossible to visit a grocery store without hearing the music of several different languages all around us. In the last month alone, I have personally heard Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Croatian, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Hindi, Italian, Portuguese, and Farsi – in addition to English and French! Hearing a variety of languages spoken in my own neighbourhood and in local supermarkets is one of my favourite experiences of living in London.
The term “multilingual” is increasingly used by teachers to describe students from various backgrounds who are in the process of learning the language of instruction in our Canadian schools. To me, this is a positive affirmation that identifies multilingual students as “haves” (speakers of many languages) rather than “have-nots” (lacking proficiency in the school’s language of instruction). It is no surprise, then, that researchers have discovered that by encouraging multilingual students to use their home languages alongside the language of the classroom, they come to view themselves as talented and accomplished speakers of multiple languages who are more likely to engage academically, rather than feeling limited by their current abilities in the school language. In recent years, Canadian teachers have been exploring a variety of inclusive learning strategies and programs that use students’ multiple languages as enrichment opportunities for all students.
As a “collector of words” and a lifelong lover of languages, our own Madame Proulx exemplifies such a commitment to linguistic engagement with all of our students who are blessed with rich and diverse mother tongues. It is common to hear Madame greeting, inquiring, and thanking children in languages other than French or English! I have overheard Korean, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Farsi – and now Latin! – in little corners of our school where Madame quietly works.
Dr. Jim Cummins, emeritus professor from OISE (U of T), reminds us that we should connect instruction to our students’ lives, build on their background knowledge, and maximize their intellectual and aesthetic talents in an emotionally safe learning environment. According to Cummins, “when we acknowledge the role of students’ home languages in their lives and explore options that build on their multilingual skills, all students learn how to work across their differences and gain appreciation for different languages and cultures” – skills that will contribute to a better, brighter and more beautiful Canada.
The lovely Arabic-speaking lady who works at our school as part of the evening housekeeping team recently apologized to me for her developing English skills when we were chatting. My response to her? “What do you mean? I give your English an ‘A+’ – and I also appreciate your patience with me because your English is far superior to my Arabic!”
And that got a smile which is a language we can all understand!
Ric Anderson, Head of School