ECTACO Info | Commitments to bilingualism ring hollow

Patrick Butler

For the next few weeks, my family will play host to an exchange student participating in the YMCA’s Youth Summer Work Exchange, a program that swaps high school students from French and English-speaking areas of Canada for six weeks over the summer.

As part of the program, we were lucky enough to receive Lisa, a Québécoise originally from Belgium, while my sister spends her summer in Montreal.
Lisa, 16, is fluently trilingual and speaks perfect English, handling our rapid-fire conversations with ease. In fact, I’ll admit to being kinda jealous of the effortlessness with which she expresses herself in English, her third language (French being her first and Spanish her second — her Venezuelan mother having taught it to her at a young age).

Lisa is at a huge advantage compared to most Canadians. Language is, after all, perhaps the most transferable skill, useful in any situation and always an asset, whether at home or abroad. Having three languages under her belt while many Canadians remain unilingual (and unwaveringly so throughout their lives) sets her apart from the rest.

Achieving fluency in a foreign language is challenging, but the opportunities afforded people who speak more than one language are astronomical. Learning a foreign language can have transformative effects that often reach beyond the positive consequences typically associated with multilingualism.

Speaking a second or third language beefs up a person’s CV by making him or her more marketable in the workplace, and means ease while travelling. But there are many frequently overlooked benefits to bilingualism.

An important part of learning a new language is gaining an understanding of the culture and history associated with it, and in doing so, making yourself more knowledgeable of the world. As a result, it is often said that when communicating in a foreign language, you take on a new character and a different outlook on life.

Also worth noting is the confidence and pride that accompany achieving fluency in a foreign language. Speaking in your second language requires self-assurance and commitment, and success at that first conversation with a stranger or a francophone can be a huge milestone. Furthermore, speaking a second language is a lifelong skill — an ability that is just as useful in your 20s as it will be in your 70s. Language, in short, is the gift that keeps on giving...