From many mother tongues

As Canada continues to welcome immigrants, the language diversity within the country continues to increase. The 2016 census shows that over seven million Canadians report having an immigrant mother language (non-English, French or Indigenous languages), which is a 13.3% increase from 2011.

Paivi Koskinen, PhD, a linguistics professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, lends her insight in preparation for Feb. 21, the UN international Mother Language Day.

Language expands our scope on culture

Koskinen sees language as an intricate tool to inform people of the world around them, but also to break down the fear barriers that have been on display in the wider media.

Totem poles speak of Indigenous languages. | Photo ccourtesy of Health Ministry of Victoria

“What is most apparent in the media [today] – which presumably is a reflection of the thoughts a lot of people are currently having – is this strong division between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she says. “The more you learn about other people the more you realize that just because something is different it does not make it threatening.”

Early immersion in multiple languages is closely linked to conscientiousness and open-mindedness, two traits that can pay dividends later in the business world.

“Language learning always comes with an insight into culture. For instance, if you can speak a little of the language and along those lines understand the history in why people react in a specific manner, then of course you will be much more efficient in doing business with someone in China, Japan or Korea,” says Koskinen.

According to Koskinen, learning languages at an early age can lead to numerous cognitive benefits including the ease of learning additional languages, increased proficiency in math, as well as a delay of up to five years in the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Sharing the first languages of Canada

Paivi Koskinen, a KPU linguistics faculty member, will speak on the importance of mother languages. | Photo courtesy of Paivi Koskinen

Landmark and heritage names like Haida Gwai, Squamish, Tsawassen and even Kwantlen are among the strongest tools to spread awareness of the people that first lived in Canada and their traditions. They serve as a constant reminder of the proud nations that 150 years of colonization could not remove and reiterate the validity of these languages by maintaining prominence equal to French and English. Though these landmarks are a start, there are certain hurdles before teaching Indigenous languages on a wider scale.

“What we have to realize is that a lot of the Indigenous languages had no writing system, therefore no grammar books, dictionaries or educational materials,” says Koskinen. “So, the first thing you have to do is start writing textbooks and developing curricula. We need to fund them at an entirely different level as well as acknowledge that those languages existed here long before English and French did.”

The outlook is good for many traditional Indigenous languages as more and more people are speaking them in their homes and work on creating these educational texts and programs.

Language as a force

When language is shared it becomes a window into another culture and a step towards greater understanding and acceptance.

“Obviously, the more we understand the kinds of thoughts and values that are possible in other cultures, the more positively we will feel towards other people,” says Koskinen. “As much as Western culture believes it has all the answers and we can teach everyone else [everything], there is so much everyone can learn from other people.”

One very important factor to learning another language is to accept that one may never be perfect in speaking it.

“Very often in our society the idea in language learning is to become fluent like a native speaker,” Koskinen explains, “but I don’t think that should be the goal of language learning.”