CFN – Do your kids go to kindergarten? Do you like or dislike sushi? Have you ever rendez-vous’d with anyone, or enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude? Congratulations – you’re more of a polyglot than you probably realized. Those words, common enough in the English language, aren’t traditional English words at all. For that matter, neither are assassinate, critic or bump, all words artificially inseminated into English usage by William Shakespeare. Have you ever googled something or texted a friend? If you asked your great grandparents to do either of those things, they wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about.
While we like to think of language as being a static thing, it really isn’t. Pure laine French, for instance, is a derivative of Latin; a thousand years from now, we’ll be calling it something else entirely. By the same token, opponents to bilingual education in predominantly Anglophone areas of Canada would probably be surprised by just how much of English is derived from Norman French. Languages are organic; they evolve, just as people do. New ideas, new technologies, even whimsy contribute to the inevitable linguistic drift all tongues face. Languages must adapt to the needs of their speakers, just as people need to adapt to their environments.
If you’ve ever worked in a specialized field, you’ll know exactly what that’s like. When I first started working at Queen’s Park in 2005, I created a list of jargon so I could keep all the terms straight. It took a while to figure out what phrases like “flip a deck to the MO” (email a PowerPoint presentation to a Minister’s Office) or “EA to the PA” (Executive Assistant to the Parliamentary Assistant of a Minister) meant. While some people in politics wore their jargon as a badge of honour – something that set themselves apart (and I suppose, in their minds, above) others, I found it to be incredibly exclusionary. I swore to myself I would never fall into the trap of poli-speak, but it was a hard model to break – there were concepts I’d learned for which literally no other expressions existed. Like using a computer, writing a letter or framing an event, the ability to speak politics was simply a skill I needed to do the job effectively.
Having said that, a big part of my Queen’s Park role involved communicating with non-political folk like constituents, stakeholders and the media. If I was trying to get a point across for a news story, or trying to explain to a senior how to apply online for a health card, I had to find common ground between what I knew in poli-speak and what they would understand from their own perspective. In this, I had an advantage; going into politics, I already spoke three languages fluently and was conversant in several others. This base of linguistic knowledge made it a lot easier for me to bridge the communication gap and achieve my end goal – helping people connect with the services they needed.
Working in the healthcare sector involves incredibly complex skills, matched by a whole dictionary of new terminology. If you think learning to count to ten in a foreign language is tough, try memorizing all the different veins in the neck. Of course, this is how it has to be; using an MRI, reading the results of an ultrasound, or identifying the rotator cuff from all of the scapulohumeral muscles requires a bit more precision than “this one” vs. “that one.”
To work in the sector, healthcare practitioners have to learn a new language – call it med-speak. Med-speak allows them to work internally with other healthcare professionals, but what it doesn’t let them do is communicate with patients. A woman who has just had a miscarriage might be devastated to be told she’d actually had a spontaneous abortion; if you don’t know what it is, being told by a doctor you have a perianal hematoma could be terrifying or mean nothing at all.
How does all this relate to bilingualism in the Cornwall Community Hospital? If an Anglophone goes in for medical advice and is given a completely med-speak diagnosis and treatment regimen, they are no further ahead. In fact, they will either become wholly dependent on the doctor, going back for things to be done to them and extending wait times, or they’ll give up on treatment entirely, which is even worse. The exact same thing is the case when the patient is a francophone and the doctor or nurse only speaks English. It isn’t enough for our doctors and nurses to understand healthcare. These professionals need to be able to communicate that knowledge to be effective.
We have to move away from looking at bilingual proficiency as exclusionary, unless we want to start looking at all training as exclusionary. Would you want a doctor without medical training diagnosing you? If not, why would you think it acceptable to be treated by a doctor who can’t communicate a diagnosis to you in a way you understand? For those who would argue francophones are “faking it” when they say they don’t fully understand English diagnoses, next time you’re in a hospital ask the professionals to only talk to you in med-speak and let me know how comfortable it feels.
Language is a skill; just as it’s possible to learn technical jargon without compromising your normal language, you can learn as many additional languages as you want without losing your mother tongue. Like all skills, the more languages you have, the greater your personal value is – a useful thing to consider as the job market gets tighter.
If you’re a unilingual Anglophone and this idea makes you feel uncomfortable, look at it this way – given the strong influence of Norman French in English, you’re half-way there already.
Craig Carter Edwards
Born and raised in Cornwall, Craig has lived in or travelled to nearly 30 countries and currently resides in North York with his wife and son. A political veteran, Craig brings a wealth of government, private and not-for-profit sectors experience to his current role as strategy consultant for the social entrepreneurship sector.