Pablo, 18, Ontario
When I first moved from Montreal to Ottawa when I was nine, I had many reasons to be nervous. Leaving behind all of my childhood friends, changing schools and moving to a new city; all made me feel anxious for my fourth grade. When I arrived and became a Franco-Ontarian, someone who speaks French and lives in Ontario, I soon discovered that a more personal part of me would give me trouble: my language.
Whether it be arriving in a country where a different language is spoken, moving to a city with a different dialect or even living in a context where your spoken language is the minority, language is such a personal and important part of our everyday life and of our identity. I was no exception.
In Montreal, I attended francophone schools and spoke French with most of my friends, whether on the playground, at the park, or at home. Simply put, alongside the Spanish I spoke at home and the English I picked up in kindergarten, French was a daily part of my life and a part of who I was starting to see myself to be.
My first few months at the French immersion school we had picked were as much a shock as cold water. Not only did I struggle to make new friends and find my place within my community, my preference for French and this very English setting added heavily to the challenge. In the first days, I found myself sadder, quieter and shyer than usual. Why speak and interact when your language is a source of shame and laughs? It’s then that I discovered a solution I thought could solve all my problems and finally feel at home: I let go of my French. Obviously, I lost much of my French in that timespan.
Looking back, it’s still hard to be too hard on myself. Language is at its core a community activity. How could I maintain my French with realistically no one to speak it to? Why would I want to continue speaking French when I was answered with funny looks, laughs and name-calling?
Besides leading me to abandon my French and lose some fluency, my experience with linguistic bullying – that is to say bullying experienced because of language – helped me discover how important language is for human beings. It was important enough that the negativity and discomfort caused by linguistic bullying had a huge impact on my personality and self-esteem. It’s why I felt compelled to speak about my experience at WE Day Ottawa in 2017, where I encouraged young people from across Canada and the world to see languages as advantages and as gifts, and not as obstacles.
While we’re still young, let’s strive to learn a new language. It could be one spoken in your family, one from your country’s history a completely random one. Treating others with respect, regardless of the language they speak or the accent they speak it with is equally important. The act of learning a new language, even just starting to, is a sign that we’re open to the world, the people who live in it and their stories.
In a country so shaped by multiple communities and in an increasingly interconnected planet, language has a fundamental role to play on the road to a better world. After all, language is at its core a community activity.