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It’s time to overcome barriers to multilingualism: prof

Being able to speak multiple languages is now considered cool, but the journey has been difficult, says language expert Monica Heller

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In the last 20 years or so, Canadians have changed their perception of multilingualism from negative to positive, an academic expert on language told an audience at Dalhousie University Wednesday night.

“Not to long ago my mother in-law was saying ‘Are you sure it is OK to speak to your kids in different languages? Should I be concerned?’” she said.

Monica Heller was the main speaker at the Multilingualism in the Globalized New Economy lecture on Wednesday night at Dalhousie University. Around 40 students and a couple of professional adults showed up for the lecture.

Heller is a professor at the University of Toronto where she is currently studying education and anthropology.

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She is also an author of the forthcoming book “Sustaining the Nation: Mobility Labour and Identity.”

Her work focuses on changing the ideology of language identity and nation with a focus in francophone Canada. Her recent publications includes the post nationalism a critical study of language and identity and language in the late capitalism in private profit.

A group of students on the Halifax Wave by the waterfront.
caption A group of students on the Halifax Wave by the waterfront.
Shelby Banks

Heller said popular obstacles to multilingualism continue to this day.

“We sometimes have that notion of shaming — that being bilingual or multilingual is not right. That you are so disorganized that you can’t even pick a language, she said.

Even our school systems can be barriers to multilingualism, she said.

French-language minority schools in Nova Scotia, in Ontario and elsewhere are the result of hard-won political struggles, she stated.

“Now, we have both English and French schools in Canada – but we had to fight for them,” said Heller.

“In places like Ontario, teachers would run around screaming ‘Don’t speak English, we have fought for so long to get you these schools. How can you bring English into these spaces?’” said Heller.

However, once parents started to see their children experience difficulties in school ”they took them to the doctor or psychologist and were told to take them out of the French school and put them back into English schools,” said Heller.

This was mainly because doctors and psychologist thought that children were getting confused with the different languages.

Today, Heller said the majority perception is that multilingualism is actually a benefit. She stated that being bilingual or multilingual is a benefit for you everywhere you go, especially in the workplace, where people need to be able to communicate in the language and culture of their clients.

“Multilingualism, that used to be bad for you, is now good for you in that it is fun, it’s hip, it’s cool,” said Heller.

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