Opinion: Bilingualism is a gift, not a threat

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My observations as a Quebec born polyglot speaker, neurolinguist and healthcare patient.

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I have been multilingual since the beginning, by default.

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As my surname indicates, I am Armenian. I was born in an English-speaking suburb of Montreal to parents who immigrated from Egypt as teenagers. My first words were spoken in English and Armenian, or, when my brain was unknowingly experimental, a hybrid of the two.

By the time I was old enough for flash cards, I had three words for the most part – in English, Armenian and French. I mischievously imitated my grandmothers’ phrases in Arabic, their secret code with my parents whenever I misbehaved. Middle Eastern culture was beautifully woven into our North American life, a mulukheia share the menu of the week with the patented Quebec poutine.

At my French-Armenian elementary school, my teacher noticed that I was grasping the finicky complexities of French grammar, and she loaded my school bag with advanced exercises. I attended a French secondary school (albeit with a rich curriculum in English and Spanish), as required by law for children of immigrant parents. I sometimes forgot that they were immigrants. My mother’s English was not accented and my father seemed as comfortable speaking French at work as English.

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After decades here, my grandmothers were able to adapt quickly to the language of their interlocutor. In addition to helping to ensure the preservation of our Armenian culture amid hate crimes and Westernization, they were to become bilingual Canadian citizens, able to discuss finance, real estate and health care in the third and fourth languages ​​they learned in their fifties.

In CEGEP, I switched to English to position myself for global career opportunities. Luckily I made the switch then and not at university – the shock of relearning science in my native English after years of studying French hit my grades in unexpected ways.

Multilingualism fascinated me even before I knew there was a scientific field dedicated to its study. Registered in psychology at McGill, I decided to specialize in the psychology of language. Although I grew up believing that multilingualism is a win-win for everyone, I was surprised to learn that it can be seen as a threat, for development or socio-political reasons.

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My advisor, Fred Genesee, has dedicated his career to debunking myths and showing that bilingualism can have personal, social and cognitive benefits without harming academic or language development. Above all, many communities with (really) at-risk Indigenous languages, in Canada and around the world, have adopted trilingual education programs to preserve the Indigenous language while acquiring the majority languages.

I continued my research on the bilingual brain during my master’s in Europe and my doctorate at McGill. My research with Karsten Steinhauer investigated changes in the multilingual brain in speakers who had reached high levels of proficiency after years of learning a foreign language. We also explored the influence that learning a new language can have on one’s mother tongue, as with immigrants, due to the fact that both languages ​​are simultaneously active in the brain. These changes are not only a testament to the adaptability of our brain, but also proof that language does not exist in a vacuum. Language is constantly changing, in the individual and in society. The rigid lines and boxes drawn in politics are not seen in the multilingual brain.

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I work partly as a writer and translator for brands that want to exploit international markets and for researchers who want to be published in international journals. Interestingly, I also edit French content for French speakers. Quebecers are changing, whether we like it or not. It does not exist in a vacuum. I regularly report expressions like Anglicism (borrowed from English), as the prescriptive “language police” would have it, but I know that these brands speak to their audience, and that’s how their audience speaks. Beyond English technical or marketing terms, they use words like ‘fitter’ and ‘cedulate’ and ‘revamper’ and who am I to correct them when I know that’s just how language lives and breathes?

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Although I am a polyglot, I still feel like I belong to the oppressed. It seems that it’s still not enough to speak French and to work in French, and that hurts. I have endometriosis, a debilitating condition that is misunderstood and underestimated – a perfect storm of medical myths, stigma and gender bias. Mix in a dose of language bias and you’re in for a treat!

One night, the throbbing pain in my abdomen became unbearable. My husband called an ambulance. I couldn’t walk. I barely managed to put on pants. “How is the pain?” asked the paramedic in French. “It’s…like a knife,” I groaned, the Frenchman suddenly slipping away in my agony. The paramedic sternly reformulated my sentence in the official language. In the hospital, dazed by painkillers that barely relieved the pain, I made the mistake of asking my question in English. The resident wouldn’t have it. “It’s a French hospital,” he said. ” Here we speak French.

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I lived in Italy and due to the nature of my condition I was also hospitalized there. Although I am fluent in Italian, there are gaps in my vocabulary when it comes to complex human anatomy and mysterious symptoms. Clinical studies have shown that patients with endometriosis must use metaphors to describe their symptoms. Metaphors don’t come easily in a foreign language. But when language failed, gestures and drawings saved the day. Even in a small village in Croatia, when I limped to the hilltop hospital after running over a poor sea urchin on the beach, I wasn’t mugged for speaking English while they removed the thorns from my heel. You can tell tourists here are treated with the same courtesy, but what a heartbreaking double standard that would be.

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The dynamic may be different here. But that sounds like oppression, not promotion. It looks like colonizing, not protecting. I fear that Bill 96 will harm vulnerable communities.

I have always maintained that everyone should be functionally bilingual in Quebec. I want French to flourish, but I would also like to speak to my surgeon in English about complex if-then scenarios without fear of clinical notes being ripped out and fines being imposed. I would love to speak English to my husband on a walk without attracting hostile stares. My mother and I used to joke that the OQLF would search our homes to make sure our spice jars were labeled in French. We would laugh. Should we still laugh?

What if, instead of punishing people for speaking English, there were more incentives to use French? What if we promoted and protected French from a place of opportunity rather than suppression?

Bilingualism is not a threat. It’s a gift.

Kristina Kasparian is a writer, neurolinguist and entrepreneur with a PhD in neurocognition of language from McGill University. She lives in Montreal.

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