An event to bring people together
If you live in the Vancouver area, I invite you to the September 23 Community Languages Festival – Facebook event here – held from 2-5 PM at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood house. The goals are to bring people together from different languages backgrounds, talk to each other, and broaden our thoughts about the role of languages in our communities. The event was made possible by a Vancouver Foundation small grant, which my neighbour and friend Vince and I applied to in the spring. This post explores some of the reasons I decided to help put on such an event.
As a denizen and language teacher in Vancouver, I have seen both the diversity of our city and the tendency we have to socially clump by common first language or common geographical origin. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The dysfunction arises, however, when we are unable or unwilling to engage with others across what appear as borders or boundaries, due to lack of knowledge how, lack of comfort, or power imbalances. I am interested in how people can become skilled at border-crossing, comfortable with it, and, in the case of power imbalances, able to cut down their own fences or climb over those of others.
Ryuko Kubota, a professor I was fortunate to learn with at U.B.C. during my master degree, has offered the idea of “border-crossing communication” as something that we can develop, by becoming more aware of other ways of speaking, developing open attitudes and curiosity, and adjusting our own way of speaking depending on the person in front of us. I hope our event can spark some of these habits or remind people of their value.
In our largely English dominant culture, we often measure people’s abilities only with an English monolingual yardstick. An alternative, supported by researcher Jennifer Jenkins, is to value multilingual people’s often amazing capacities to function across different linguistic contexts, and to focus on using English as a lingua franca, which means adapting how we speak English depending on who is in the room. Jenkins points out that many nonnative English speakers are already very adept at this; it is actually native speakers of English who must develop their multilingualism and ability to adapt their English, to avoid alienating themselves and failing at communication. At our upcoming event, we plan to use name tags that show all of our language capacities, to highlight the multilingualism in the room, and encourage people to take advantage of it, instead of defaulting to English.
Indigenous languages in Vancouver
Only within the last year have I learned the names of the Indigenous languages of the Vancouver area: Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓. Most people that I talk to can’t name them, and don’t know how many speakers there are or what work is being done to revitalize them. Why don’t we see and hear these languages? Why don’t we learn them in school? In discussions of language training for newcomers and multilingualism, I never hear about Indigenous languages. This is why I reached out to Squamish language educator Khelsilem before applying for the grant for this event; if we were going to hold it, I wanted to bring knowledge of Indigenous languages into the room, and begin bridging the worlds of newcomer languages and Indigenous languages.
Community and social fabric
I sometimes feel overwhelmed by challenges, from climate change, to unaffordable housing, to refugee settlement, to mental health battles faced by people I know. Increasingly, I am curious about the role of community in providing us with the nurturance to feel okay and face challenges together. Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, writes, “Social fabric is created one room at a time. It is formed from smalls steps that ask ‘Who do we want in the room?’ and ‘What is the new conversation that we want to occur?’” These are questions that are guiding our event, with the hope of weaving some social fabric.
Inevitably I feel anxious about the event, but I am also glad to trying something new. If you can, please join us! And bring a family member or friend.
Kubota, R. (2012). Awareness of the politics in EIL. In A. Matsuda (Ed.), Teaching English as an international language: Principles and practices. Multilingual Matters.
Jenkins, J. (2009). Exploring attitudes towards English as a lingua franca in the East Asia context. In K. Murata & J. Jenkins (Eds.), Global Englishes in Asian contexts: Current and future debates (pp. 40-56). New York: Palgrave McMillan.