First Language(s)

As part of my $dayJob, I consider how the words I write will translate into other languages in which we publish and post our content. I’ve got tools in my toolbox for writing for a global audience, and how to help folks reading something that is not their first language.

My first language is English. My heritage is Italian (on Dad’s side) and Polish (on mom’s side). I understand the former poorly and the latter not-at-all. Neither language was spoken in my parents or grandparents home – other than for folksy colloquialisms. I mean, I took a few years of Saturday Morning Italian School with my same-heritage friends as young ragazza. I can go to a Sons of Italy dinner and understand the very high-level gist of some of what’s going on. I can read a menu at an Italian restaurant like a champ, though. And at the Opera – Puccini and Rossini and Verdi aren’t as inaccessible as they might have been had I tried harder or, perhaps, stuck with it – so yeah, I’m still thankful for the supertitles that caption the libretto for me.

I live in Canada, where our second official language is French. And I dutifully took French in school, as all Canadian (non-Quebecois) kids do. I have two Ontario Academic Credits in French – Core, and Literature. I read Les Fleurs du Mal (which perhaps broody teenagers should not actually read) and I listened to Je Ne Regrette Rein. I was even on my high school French Team (which was kind of like Reach for the Top/Quiz Bowl, except en français). But then life and years and dis-use happened and my language skills, such as they were, atrophied. Along the way I’ve resuscitated enough to help Child in school, and to read Camille Peint Tout Partout and later TinTin comics – right up until his need to conjugate verbs exceeded my ability to help in that regard. There have been a few pushes on my part to sharpen my skills with a book of conversational French drills, and watching movies in French, and nothing against Edith Piaf, but I relate better to Coeur de Pirate these days. And certainly, I boned up in preparation for a years-ago trip to France and Belgium.

So earlier this year, when Child asked me if I was interested in pooling money with him to get a family subscription to Duolingo, I thought about it. We waffled back and forth about Duolingo vs Babbel vs Rosetta Stone, and we did nothing. Randomly, I see a Really! Great! Deal! On one of my media feeds, and I send it to him, and we spool the machine back up, only to leave it idling too long and the thought goes dormant again.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not language adverse.  I can, by the magic of my monthly publishing duties at $dayJob, tell you random words I’ve learned to recognize in Dutch and Portuguese (Assignments! Discussions! Technical Details!) I can swear in several languages (Lookin’ at you, German! See also: Italian and French, which don’t actually add to my language tally. I mean, I’m not Tom Hiddleson). But I feel like many people can curse in a language they don’t actually speak… um… except the swearybits.

But I digress.

I even learned a speech in ASL for my Sister-in-law’s wedding, because she had a bridesmaid with hearing impairment. That said, let’s be real – 15 years later, I remember none of it. But I regularly eye the ASL courses offered locally because you never know when that will come in handy, right? And every time I’ve gone somewhere that the language isn’t English, I learn/refresh myself on words and phrases that will serve me well, and not make me sound or look like an ignorant buffoon of a tourist. When I went to Cuba or the Dominican Republic, I took a smattering of Latin American Spanish with me to be a courteous guest to my transportation and resort hosts.

With all that in mind, imagine my surprise when I saw a reel on the Stratford Festival insta feed, and suddenly realized that astonishingly absent in  my language skills are even social niceties in any of Canada’s First Nations Languages. And that ain’t right.

In doing my due dilligence for this post, I realized that I don’t even know the list of indigenous languages spoken in Canada. I could name a few – Cree, Dene, Inuktitut, Ojibwe, Mi’kmaq – most First Nations native speakers use one of 10 languages, but there are more than 60 present in Canada. Seriously, 60 languages and I can say hello in ZERO of them. That ain’t right at all.

I have a Very Glamourous aunt who has been fortunate enough to spend lots of time travelling over her lifetime. Half a lifetime (for me, anyway) she told me about how, when she was in a taxi in Egypt, and no one in the car spoke Arabic, and the driver did not speak English (which was the first language of everyone else). She said that they realized that several people in the car, including the driver, spoke French. And that was how they conversed for the time he was in their employ. I’ve thought about this a lot. I read an article about an older woman stranded at the airport in… wanna say Toronto?… and couldn’t speak English. She was getting increasingly agitated and someone called security. Eventually, another passenger stepped in who spoke the older woman’s language and could translate. She likely would have ended up being labelled a threat and detained had someone not stepped up. Yikes.

I think about that whenever I’m in public spaces – what if someone with communication challenges needed help and no one was there to give it? What if that happens a *lot* already? What if knowing a greeting in someone’s own language made a difference in their experience of their day?

So, to the reel on the Stratford Festival Insta feed:

The Casa di Swears is situated on the Haldimand Tract , which includes 6 miles on each side of the Grand River. Where I sit right now is more like 1 mile to the Grand River. The Haldimand Proclamation granted this land to the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and is within the territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee peoples.

So yeah, maybe the way to not look like an ignorant buffoon in my own country is to learn a bit of what’s here, too. And that’s where I start today, friends, with Chris Mejaki’s guidance:

Baamaapii Kawaabmin!

Extra Credit:

Indigenous Languages in Canada

Why learn languages

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