- Vancouver, British Columbia - Once I was in a café several years ago, minding my own business. An Asian fellow had his laptop in front of him, but was presently occupied with a conversation on his cellphone in his own native language. He wasn't speaking overly loud, but it was noticeable. Another patron of the café, however, must have felt that it was too loud. He marched over to the conversing patron and said, "For Christ's sake, this is Canada! Speaking fucking English!" and then marched back to his seat. That outburst was loud and impossible to ignore. The café went a little silent, and while I wish I could say that I had experienced a outpouring of courage within me to shout down the foul-mouthed coffee drinker, I did nothing. I sat there. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but perhaps while I found this man's outburst offensive, I, at the time, might have shared his annoyance at having to hear so many foreign languages in a predominantly English-speaking country. This was, however, before I moved to France for a year and had my perspective dramatically changed.
I transfered my entire life to France in 2009, thinking that I spoke French pretty well. My first attempt at a conversation with the ticket agent at the train station shattered any illusions I had about my language skills in Canada's second official language. The ticket agent switched to English and then proceeded to tell me that I didn't want to go to Dunkirk, France, where I had my job, since as he said, "Dunkirk isn't a nice place." I scurried myself onto the train in dread fear that one of the people near me might actually be a sociable Frenchman and want to converse with me. Thankfully, I was left alone, while I pulled out a French grammar book and tried to cram as much helpful information into my brain as I could.
Over the first three months, the other teachers and I, who lived together, decided to speak English as it was the language that we all felt the most comfortable in, since they were foreigners in France as well (German, Spain, and China). Eventually though, we switched to French. And while I had an amazing experience living abroad in France, the isolation that comes with very rarely being able to speak English with native English speakers can be a subtly overwhelming. I taught English to French teenagers and while some of them were very gifted in their English language abilities, it still wasn't like speaking to a native English speaker. I came to relish any opportunities I had to spend time with Americans or Canadians who were in the same line of work with me, since it was then that I'd be allowed to express myself fully and completely without having to worry if I was speaking too quickly for my audience. I'm someone who enjoys talking and expressing himself, so it was rather difficult for me emotionally to often feel like my tools of expression were limited in a foreign language, and quite honestly, it was entirely exhausting to try to communicate to the same level of depth in French as I try to in English.
Back in Canada, however, I've often found customer service individuals showing very little patience, let alone kindness, to their customers who have recently come to Canada and are struggling with English. Yet still, I often hear English-speaking Canadians ridicule Parisiens for having absolutely no patience with those trying to speak French in Paris, since these Parisiens switch to English so quickly. It is hard to not scratch one's head about this, because I often see the same sort of behaviour here in Canada.
I recently had a friend express to me that he was so sick and tired of hearing, in his words, "ching-chang-chong" from Asians studying together at his school and that as far as he was concerned, they should only speak English if they are in Canada. After all, they are here to learn English, aren't they? While I can appreciate that there are probably some foreigners who don't take full advantage of the opportunity to learn the language, I also can appreciate the treasure that it is to speak your own language without restraint in terms of your own sense of expression, when you're isolated in a foreign country.
But there is something more disheartening about what I see in Canada about how we treat foreigners here to learn English. We often judge one's intelligence in part upon their ability to speak the language and naturally, when someone struggles to put together a sentence, we either deem them to have a child-like intelligence, or that of someone who just is an idiot and can't be dealt with and isn't worth our time. While we might not admit that we treat them like they have less in intelligence, our actions and body language often convey this to these foreigners. I can still remember the particular look in a Frenchman's eyes when he is judging me for my inability to speak French perfectly and beginning to treat me as if I were a child. I speak it pretty well now, but this wasn't always the case.
I recently watched a YouTube clip that a colleague had posted on their wall about a young Korean fellow who participated in "Korea's Got Talent" and admittedly, it was somewhat different to see Koreans conversing and expressing themselves fully and completely in their own language to each other without restraint. There was no fear of judgement or apprehension that some idiot would tell them to shut up and speak in English. The whole experience just revealed to me again how easy it is for us, as Canadians, to judge foreigners as being a certain way or being a certain person based primarily on their English langauge skills or on how they might struggle to express themselves. I remember telling one of my French teachers that one of my frustrations in French was that I felt like a completely different person, or at the very least that I gave off a different impression of who I was from the person I actually believed myself to be in English. I felt like people who were judging me based on their experiences with in me in French wouldn't get the whole picture about who I was or what made me who I am.
In the same way, I fear that we make this same mistake with many of the foreigners who call Canada their temporary home. We fail to acknowledge the challenges that they are experiencing in their isolation from their loved ones and their homelands, while simultaneously judging them to be witless morons for being unable to express themselves as clearly as we are in our own native language. We miss out on so much when we look down upon these courageous individuals who are bravely attempting to learn a language away from their support groups. We prevent ourselves from learning about the potential insights that they might share with us from their experience within our culture. If we slowed down to listen and be patient, we might have a lot to gain.