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Opinion: Bilingualism is a gift, not a threat

My observations as a multilingual speaker, a neurolinguist, and a health-care patient born in Quebec.

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I’ve been multilingual from the start, by default.

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As my last name reveals, I am Armenian. I was born in an Anglophone suburb of Montreal to parents who immigrated from Egypt in their teens. My first words were spoken in English and Armenian, or, when my brain was unknowingly experimental, a hybrid of both.

By the time I was old enough for flash cards, I had three words for most — in English, Armenian and French. I’d cheekily mimic my grandmothers’ sentences in Arabic, their secret code with my parents whenever I was misbehaving. Middle Eastern culture was beautifully tangled with our North American life, a hearty mulukheia sharing the week’s menu with Quebec’s patented poutine.

At my French-Armenian elementary school, my teacher noticed I grasped the capricious complexities of French grammar, and she packed my schoolbag heavy with advanced exercises. I attended a French high school (albeit with a rich English and Spanish curriculum) as was required by law for children of immigrant parents. I sometimes forgot that they were immigrants, though. My mom’s English was unaccented, and my dad seemed as comfortable speaking French at work as English.

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After decades here, my grandmothers were able to swiftly adapt to their interlocutor’s language. On top of helping to ensure the preservation of our Armenian culture amid hate crimes and westernization, they had to become bilingual Canadian citizens, able to discuss finances and real estate and health care in the third and fourth languages ​​they learned in their 50s.

In CEGEP, I switched to English to position myself for global career opportunities. Good thing I made the switch then and not in university — the shock of relearning science in my native English after years of French schooling unexpectedly rattled my grades.

Multilingualism fascinated me before I even knew there was a scientific field dedicated to its study. Enrolled in psychology at McGill, I decided to specialize in the psychology of language. Though I’d grown up convinced that multilingualism is a win-win for all, I was surprised to learn that it can be perceived as a threat, for developmental or sociopolitical reasons.

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My adviser, Fred Genesee, devoted his career to debunking myths and to showing that bilingualism can have personal, social and cognitive advantages without detriment to academic or language development. Crucially, many communities with (truly) at-risk Indigenous languages, in Canada and worldwide, have adopted trilingual education programs to preserve the Indigenous language while acquiring the majority languages.

I went on to research the bilingual brain during my master’s in Europe and my PhD back at McGill. My research with Karsten Steinhauer studied changes in the multilingual brain in speakers who had reached high levels of proficiency after years of learning a foreign language. We also explored the influence that learning a new language can have on one’s native language, such as in immigrants, as a result of both languages ​​being simultaneously active in the brain. These changes are not only a testament to our brain’s adaptability but also proof that language does not exist in a vacuum. Language is in constant flux, in the individual and in society. The rigid lines and boxes drawn in politics are not seen in the multilingual brain.

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I partly work as a copywriter and translator for brands that want to tap into international markets and for researchers who want to be published in international journals. Interestingly, I also edit French content for francophone speakers. Quebec is changing, whether one likes it or not. It does not exist in a vacuum. I regularly flag expressions as an anglicism (borrowed from English), as the prescriptive “language police” would have me do, yet I know that these brands are speaking to their audience, and this is the way their audience speaks. Beyond English technical or marketing terms, they use words like “fitter” and “céduler” and “revamper” and who am I to correct them when I know that this is merely how language lives and breathes?

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Though I am multilingual, it still feels like I belong to the oppressed. It seems it’s still not enough to speak French and work in French, and it hurts. I suffer from endometriosis, a disabling health condition that is misunderstood and underestimated — a perfect storm of medical myths, stigmas and gender bias. Mix in a dose of language bias and you’re in for a real treat!

One night, the pain pulsing through my abdomen became impossible to handle. My husband called an ambulance. I couldn’t walk. I barely managed to put on pants. “What’s the pain like?” the paramedic asked in French. “C’est … like a knife,” I wailed, French suddenly escaping me in my agony. The paramedic sternly recast my sentence in the official language. At the hospital, woozy from painkillers that barely took the edge off the pain, I made the mistake of asking my question in English. The resident wouldn’t have it. “This is a French hospital,” I snapped. “We speak French here.”

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I’ve lived in Italy and, due to the nature of my condition, I’ve been hospitalized there too. Although I speak Italian fluently, there are gaps in my vocabulary when it comes to complex human anatomy and mysterious symptoms. Clinical studies have shown that endometriosis patients have to resort to metaphors to describe their symptoms. Metaphors don’t come easy in a foreign language. But when language failed, gestures and drawings saved the day. Even in a tiny village in Croatia, when I limped to the hilltop hospital after squashing a poor sea urchin on the beach, I wasn’t aggressed for speaking English while they removed the spines from my heel. You may say tourists here are treated with the same courtesy, but what a heartbreaking double standard that would be.

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Dynamics may be different here. But this feels like oppressing, not promoting. This feels like colonizing, not protecting. I worry that Bill 96 will hurt vulnerable communities.

I’ve always argued everyone should be functionally bilingual in Quebec. I want French to thrive, but I would also love to speak English to my surgeon about complex if-then scenarios without fearing that clinical notes will be snatched and given ends. I would love to speak English to my husband on a stroll without garnering hostile glances. My mom and I used to joke that the OQLF would search our homes to ensure that our spice jars were labeled in French. We’d laugh. Should we still be laughing?

What if, instead of punishing people for speaking English, there were more incentives for using French? What if we promoted and protected French from a place of opportunity rather than suppression?

Bilingualism is not a threat. It’s a gift.

Kristina Kasparian is a writer, neurolinguist and entrepreneur with a PhD in the neurocognition of language from McGill University. She lives in Montreal.

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