Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Canada is Bilingual -- Why Not the U.S., Too?

I just returned from a mini-vacation in Montreal and Quebec City, Canada. While I kept struggling to get directions or negotiate payments in French, Montrealers in particular seemed to effortlessly move in and out of English and French, depending on the situation and persons involved. That was even true for some American friends who had moved to Montreal a few years ago and were working in a French-speaking environment. Even in Quebec City, where French is much more prevalent than in Montreal, our elderly host at the Bed and Breakfast where we stayed easily switched to English when he saw me struggling to understand him.

Given that everyone in Quebec learns both languages starting in elementary school and not infrequently encounters situations where he/she needs to use his/her non-dominant language that is not surprising. Since fluency in multiple languages is becoming increasingly important in a ever more globalized world, one wonders why it is so rare outside special circumstances such as officially bi-lingual countries. It seems to me that a similar strategy of early immersion in a second language could be replicated relatively easily at least in large U.S. cities, most of which have a rather significant Spanish-speaking population.

If children here in New York, for example, were to learn Spanish intensively starting in, say, third grade, and then were encouraged to use that knowledge in day-to-day interactions with the city's Spanish-speaking population, we could raise a bilingual generation. That would, of course, also require expanding access to Latino cultural contributions to the mainstream, selling Spanish-speaking newspapers everywhere and increasing Spanish-language programming on TV and radio.

My only problem with that scenario is that if I went to Quebec then, my Spanish would intrude into my French even more than it does now.

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