When I was a kid, I wasn't up on a Saturday morning watching cartoons while eating fruit loops. Instead, like many Tamil children, I was usually half asleep trying to learn the language that I first learned to speak. I didn't hate going to Tamil school because I missed out on cartoons. I think I hated going because it was a hard language to learn.
At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience. I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 16 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three stages of language acquisition.
A couple of insignificant words shouldn't matter much, but to me, it meant a lot. Forgetting a few words meant having awkward, half-formed conversations with my parents. It meant feeling alienated from an ethnic community that was strongly bound by a common language. Most importantly, it meant losing an inherent part of my Vietnamese identity. Each time I forgot another word, it was like I was a little less Vietnamese.
Although I've lived essentially my whole life here and received my Canadian citizenship in kindergarten, not having a Canadian birth certificate separates me from second-gen Canadians. At the same time, I don't have vivid memories of growing up anywhere else, like my parents and other first-gen Canadians. Sometimes, I feel like generation 1.5.
In 1997 I went to the West Bank to study Arabic. Once there, I found that many of the students in the program were, like me, half Palestinian, and were there as part of an attempt to discover their roots. Before I left, I hadn't thought much about how language defines who we are, or what happens when the languages we use to build our identities are rendered useless.
One of the biggest myths I have come across though is that extroverts are the better language learners. I do not believe at all that you need to be an extrovert to learn a language. Language learning isn't about your personality type, rather it comes down to whether or not you possess the three keys.
The biggest benefit of speaking languages I've seen in my career is that it increased the opportunities that came my way. You do have to have other things working for you too, of course. You have to have other skills, like knowledge of a specific sector or market, the ability to do business and the ability to be a reliable, energetic person in any number of fields.
Good language learners notice what is happening in a language. They notice the sounds, the structure and the vocabulary of the language. They notice as they listen and read. They notice when they use the language. How can we train ourselves in the ability to notice in order to become good language learners?
Have you been studying a language for a while? Are you still afraid to speak? Follow the Language Learner's Manifesto and become confident and fluent in your chosen language. Repeat the following mantra daily: "My goal is to be fluent. I can be fluent. My goal is not to be perfect. My goal is to be fluent. I can be fluent and still make mistakes."
In Canada, the term assimilation is especially unpopular. It's associated with painful events in the country's history. But the country's proponents of forced assimilation often underestimated the inevitability of resistance on the part of their targets. The lessons of our history seem lost on many Canadians as it's surprising to learn how many endorse making "others" like "them." Paradoxically, several Canadians that continue to fear assimilation are amongst those most apt to believe that their own cultural survival depends others assimilating.
Canada continues to make important strides toward more equality. But there are storm clouds on the horizon that endanger the continuing pursuit of true equality. What started as a legitimate change to bring about equality and transformation of how we viewed, treated and spoke about each other has now ossified into a rarely breached wall of silence, a silence reinforced by the onset of the West's indifference to its own good, bad or ugly -- but distinct -- societies, their values and norms. Call it white man's burden or guilt, a guilt for the sins of the past now manifesting itself in the white man's fear.
At 21 years old, I realize that I have done myself a disservice. I can barely form a coherent sentence in my language, letters are foreign squiggles to me, and I find myself performing exaggerated gestures to communicate with my non-English speaking grandma. This is certainly not due to a lack of exposure to Tamil, but more as a result of a conscious distancing.