Tag Archives: inter-cultural communication

The power of language

Photo: JoBrad

Many of us live in multilingual communities. This is wonderful in that it provides richness to our neighbourhoods and schools. It can also pose a challenge, as language can act as a barrier to sharing ideas, skills and thoughts with those around us.

In October, I posted about reaching across national borders to build community. I now turn to ways that we can reach across language borders to build community in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Learning another language is not only a powerful way to help build community, but it also contributes to our personal health. For adults, brain researchers have noted that multilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. For children, studies have shown that learning a second (or third) language provides them with more flexibility in thinking and problem solving, a greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening in general. For all ages, learning another language can be a powerful way to gain insight into another way of life, culture or perspective.

Here are six different approaches to building community through multilingualism:

1. Take a language course, download a language app or check out a language program from your local library. Many cities host language lessons in cultural centres, community centres, libraries, colleges or schools. A few communities have reached out to provide free lessons to their neighbours. In my home city, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is always open to those who wish to find out more about Aboriginal language and heritage;  the Turkish-Canadian friendship society offers free language lessons to beginners; VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society) and ICA (InterCultural Association) both offer free English lessons to newcomers. The Canadian government also offers free 5-week French immersion programs to tertiary students and teachers. Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is an adult Mohawk immersion program that takes place on the Six Nations Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. They have published some great ‘before’ and ‘after’ student videos here.

2. The Noun Project is attempting to create a visual dictionary that allows us to share basic information regardless of languages. Anyone can submit an image and the images can be used freely. You can see a written ‘translation’ in one of 25 languages by scrolling over it. Feedback is accepted by those leading the project and images are tweaked or removed if they do not symbolically make sense to users. The images are useful not just for reaching across language ‘borders’ but also by providing information to those who are illiterate.

3. How about starting with a ‘hello’? For a less intensive experience than committing to a course of study, try logging onto a website that teaches you how to greet someone in a language other than your own. You can hear how to say ‘welcome’ in many languages here and how to say ‘hello’ here. Jennifer Runner hosts a page that features greetings in over 2200 languages. Sue Unstead’s Say Hello was one of the best books I purchased for my own kids. There are buttons they can push to hear the word ‘hello’ in ten different languages.

3. Support immersion programs. I am lucky to live in a place where French immersion is an option within almost any school district in the country. In larger cities, programs such as Mandarin immersion also exist. Educational and language researchers have often noted that children benefit not only linguistically, but also in terms of developing their ability to solve problems, see multiple perspectives on an issue and demonstrate flexibility in their thinking. All of this is great training for becoming active community builders!

5. Teach and learn language through  Frontier College. It runs English-language and French-language literacy programs in ‘unconventional classrooms’: places like community centers, shelters, farms and prisons. Volunteers are needed across Canada, and Frontier College provides training and support to enable you to work with children, youth and adults. The labourer-teacher program allows you to work alongside labourers on farms, while teaching English in the evenings – a way to exchange experiences and skills. You can learn more about them here.

6. Ask. Simply ask your neighbour. While it may seem awkward to initially try and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you – just go for it! With a little creativity, you will likely be exchanging ideas and information – or at least morning greetings – before you know it.

Anyone out there have a language story or resource to share?