You may be aware that February 21st is Canada’s Family Day, but did you know it is also International Mother Language Day?
UNESCO established International Mother Language Day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. A language contains centuries of cultural knowledge and familial memory that, for Indigenous communities in particular, is in danger of being lost right alongside the words. The UN has estimated that one global Indigenous language dies out every two weeks.
The most effective safeguard against language loss is ensuring that it is passed down to younger generations.
We spoke with members of the GGP community about their relationship to their mother language. You will hear from parents teaching their language to their children and interpreters from our Cultural Health Navigator program who know exactly how vital shared language can be.
The significance of shared language
GGP’s Cultural Health Navigator (CHN) program trains interpreters whose languages and cultural backgrounds mirror those of our new refugee clients. Interpreters go beyond translation, offering cultural mediation, advocacy, and other support as needed during these clients’ interactions with the healthcare system.
Sawsan is one of our interpreters, supporting recently landed clients who speak Arabic. Their shared language and background allow Sawsan to form deep connections with our high-needs clients that go beyond initial appointments.
She has many stories of how she has gone above and beyond for clients who have nowhere else to turn. One such story is about a pregnant client who was distraught about being alone while giving birth. “She says ‘I have no sister, I have no mom here, I am alone, how can I [have] my baby?” Sawsan recalls, “I told her ‘It’s okay, I can come with you then also.’”
Sawsan smiles as she describes the memory of being in the birthing room and taking pictures of the young mother and her new baby.
The empathy she feels for her clients is often based on her own experiences as a newcomer. One client was a woman in her 70s with no English and no family able to interpret for her. After an appointment together, this woman asked Sawsan to attend her upcoming heart surgery. Sawsan said the woman told her, “I feel like you are my daughter and I hope you can help me with my operation date.”
The woman’s situation reminded Sawsan of a time in her own journey to Canada when she felt the same way: “I had this situation when I was in another country and I was lonely there, I was so scared because I don’t know anyone there, this is what came to my mind and I told her ‘I will be your daughter as you say, I am happy to help you.’”
Sawsan’s empathy and shared experience with the clients is the norm for this program. Eight months ago, Alfredo was seeking GGP services as a client after leaving his home in smalltown Venezuela. Today, he is the facilitator of the CHN program.
Alfredo is fluent in English, but his experience as a newcomer still gave him an intimate understanding of the importance of shared language. “Being in a new town, in a new city, in a new country, I was kind of afraid. So the fact that I was able to speak Spanish with someone [at GGP] made me feel more confident, made me feel safe,” Alfredo said.
That’s what Alfredo says the CHN program is for clients: in a new country with so many unknowns, “it means safety.”
Around the office, Alfredo is always asking his coworkers for language lessons in their mother tongue. He’s currently working on Farsi and Arabic and teaching his three-year-old son Spanish, English, and French.
The future is multilingual
In 2018, Maliheh came to Canada from Tehran with her husband and two children. She currently facilitates one of the Communication Circle programs at our English Language Centre.
Even before she moved to a dominantly English country, Maliheh had committed her life to teaching English, obtaining both her bachelor’s and master’s in English as a Foreign Language from Iranian universities. She is currently studying for her Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Saskatchewan.
However, she is equally passionate about non-English speakers passing on their mother language to their children, as she is doing with her own.
“When parents try to keep the first language and teach it to their kids, they should know that they are helping their own language to survive, especially now that many languages are going out of use,” Maliheh said. “We know that language and culture are inseparable; therefore, by teaching one of them, you are technically teaching the other one. That way, you keep both your language and your culture and traditions alive.”
Her mother language is Farsi, sometimes referred to as Persian. She has a ten-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son who both speak Farsi as well as English. One of her first priorities in helping them maintain Farsi in Canada was their relationship with family still in Iran: “They can communicate with our relatives and grandparents back home, and whenever we travel there, they do not feel like a stranger.”
Maliheh is also well-educated on the future opportunities multilingualism will open up for her children. “[Multilingualism] leads to educational and academic enhancement,” Maliheh said. “As an ESL teacher, I can say that knowing another language, besides English, helps me to better understand students’ needs, cultures, ideas, and thoughts.”
Despite her English fluency, there is a sense of peace she feels only when speaking with another Farsi speaker. She says she is better able to listen to the other speaker when she doesn’t have so much to think about: “When English is your second language, you need to focus on all factors needed for successful communication including words, structures, pronunciation, cultural factors, meaning, you name it…when I see someone from my country, all these are eliminated.”
She agrees strongly with Nelson Mandela’s assertion that your mother language is the one closest to your heart. “When you want to express your feelings, it is much different when you do it in your first language…expressing them in your own language gives you a sense of satisfaction,” Maliheh said.
This has only become more true since moving to a country where she is speaking English more often than not. “When someone says something in English, you know it and understand it but it does not always touch your heart; however, in your first language every word does,” Maliheh said.
However, Maliheh says the largest divide between native speakers and those who have acquired a language later in life is actually very lighthearted: “I have found it quite interesting how different jokes are among languages and I believe the reason is that jokes are rooted in culture. There are times when people tell an English joke but it is not funny at all to me while the English speakers find it very hilarious, or the other way around.”
No doubt a few of her GGP coworkers will take this as a challenge!