Language is all too often taken for granted here in Canada. It’s easy to grow up in British Columbia and learn English by immersion—just by living in English-speaking communities and going to school. But learning a new language is difficult, daunting, and requires consistent effort.
It’s always impressed me that many of my VIU classmates learn, read, and write in English as their second, third, (and sometimes fourth) language.
I had the opportunity to speak with Armin Saatchi, Hikaru Nakamura, Jazmin Betancourt, and Louis James about their journeys with language and the importance of communication with words. I also spoke with Valentine Patterson about their experience with the loss of language on Haida Gwaii and how Haida people are working together to bring the Haida language back through immersion schools and storytelling by the remaining 14 speakers.
Armin Saatchi is a VIU Bachelor of Science graduate. He grew up speaking Farsi at home in Vancouver and began learning English when he started kindergarten.
“It is easier to express emotions in English because my English vocabulary is stronger. I was very young when English took over as my first language, however, my household spoke Farsi and the culture in our home was Persian.”
He explained that in comparison to English, Farsi has a lot of “metaphor and other rhetorical cartwheels.”
“Think of London rhyming slang and literally any sentence in Swedish, like ‘You can’t just slide in here on a shrimp sandwich friend,’” which he explains is a common Swedish idiom that roughly translates to English as expecting to have something handed to you that you didn’t work for. “The variety of phrases and rhetorical devices available in Farsi—and just about any language other than English—make expression more subtextual than literal.”
Saatchi said even though English is his first language, “More often than not, when I express myself in English, it is difficult for English speakers to determine what I really mean because my thoughts, to them, are obfuscated by unfamiliar rhetoric and metaphor. I run into this problem on a daily basis.”
He is interested in learning German and Italian, and once he has mastered those he would like to try his hand at Mandarin and Japanese.
“My Farsi definitely gets weaker the more time I spend away from my family, but it usually only takes me a day or two to stop stumbling mid-sentence and be reasonably fluent again. It definitely gets rusty, but I don’t think I’m in danger of losing my mother tongue.”
Saatchi spoke about how understanding more than one language has made him more receptive to media, art, music, and film made by non-Anglophone artists.
“For instance, if I got a PS5 tomorrow and fired up Ghost of Tsushima I’d absolutely be playing it in full Japanese audio with the Kurosawa graphics mode because why the hell would I want to hear Jin Sakai, Lord of Clan Sakai, Ronin Ghost of Tsushima, speak English. Give me the subtitles and teach me how to curse in feudal Japanese.”
中村ひかる (Hikaru Nakamura) is a native Japanese speaker who graduated from VIU with her Bachelor of Business Administration. English is her second language, and she uses it for work and business, and she knows a little bit of Spanish.
Nakamura began learning English when she was seven years old after a trip to Australia revealed that Japanese was not the only language accessible to her. Back in Japan, she played around with the English alphabet and taught herself small words until seventh grade when she was required to learn English. In the eleventh grade, she took an opportunity to go to Bend, Oregon to finish high school and continue improving her English.
“When I got to Oregon I realized the English I had been learning was useless to talk with native speakers. I had no idea what people were saying. All I could say in the first few weeks was ‘How are you? I am good. I am Hikaru.’ I was so sad and disappointed, but it’s funny to look back on now.”
As with most people who learn a language outside of an immersion context, Nakamura’s reading and writing were much stronger than her speaking, and she was able to complete assignments for school. Eventually, she took a course for the International English Language Testing System and slowly became less shy about speaking English to native speakers.
“I was so lucky that I spent my university life in Nanaimo where people are open and accepting of other cultures. I was able to make friends from different places. Native speakers were very nice, they treated me the same way as they would treat their Canadian friends, which really helped to overcome [my] fear of making mistakes.”
Japanese is full of adjectives, she said. There are endless words to describe something beautiful and English is sorely lacking in that area. English’s structure is quite direct and often informal, while Japanese has more nuance and subtext.
“I truly believe that learning languages is one of the most effective ways to learn other cultures, and make friends all over the world. It’s hard to not engage someone trying to speak your own language; I’ll always try to get to know someone who wants to learn Japanese.”
She easily expresses herself in Japanese, but still struggles at times to put feelings and frustrations into words in English.
“Can I express myself in Spanish?” she repeats my question back to me and laughs. “Me gusta el helado” (“I like ice cream”).
Jazmin Betancourt grew up on the Mexican-USA border in El Paso-Juarez speaking Spanish and English both at home and at school. She also taught herself Portuguese as an adult. She is currently studying at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.
“I mostly spoke to people in Spanish and then would watch movies and listen to the radio in English. That changed when I started seventh grade and my education was all in English. In university, I speak and write in English most of the time. I learned to speak Portuguese out of necessity and the need to communicate. When I lived in Brazil no one spoke English and I needed [Portuguese] to communicate and work with people.”
Betancourt said that she can express herself just as easily in Spanish as in English, but her Portuguese is not quite there yet.
“Portuguese would be the hardest … I didn’t have as much time to learn it and my sotaque —accent—isn’t the best it can be. I read Portuguese very well. I understand all of it, but the accent is the hard part. I also don’t have people to keep talking to. I do find more Hispanos to keep my Spanish fresh.”
She finds Spanish to be more expressive, bringing in body language such as hand movements. The real challenge for learners who wish to become fluent is the slang. Each Spanish-speaking country has its own slang and idioms that are difficult to understand how to use unless you spend extended time there.
Currently, Betancourt is working on her French using the Duolingo app.
“French is one of the UN languages, and as I want to work with the UN, it is very necessary. I do want to try to learn as many languages as possible. Languages open doors.”
She explained that while she uses English on a daily basis, she doesn’t think she’d ever lose her Spanish. Portuguese might fall away easier, but even as time has passed she still understands it well.
“I have never had much trouble communicating or feeling lost in the countries that I have been [to]. I also love the challenge of trying to communicate and helping others learn. Language is communicating with people and learning cultures and language is such a cultural thing too. I enjoy really feeling like I know other cultures and understanding others helps that.”
Louis James is from Idaho and has been attending VIU for the past three years, pursuing a Global Studies major and Spanish minor. He speaks English and conversational Spanish.
“Although I took Spanish classes for years in high school, I really began learning Spanish when I went on a trip to the Dominican Republic. From that point on, my interest in the Spanish language grew and I began traveling to more Latin American countries and using the Spanish that I had learned through my classes and music that I had listened to. Over time, I eventually built up the ability to hold my own in Spanish conversations.”
He spoke about how he struggles to express himself in Spanish because of his own limited vocabulary. He hasn’t found that English emotions directly translate into Spanish words—phrases just carry different meanings in different languages.
Once James feels more confident in his Spanish he is looking forward to diving into other languages.
“Although English is considered by many to be a universal language, there are many ideas that can never be properly expressed in English and never will be. The ability to connect with other people through their own expressions and words has so much more meaning. By learning other languages, even just phrases, I am able to speak to a person in a way that is much more profound.”
James interned for four months as an assistant case manager working with refugees for World Relief in Spokane, Washington and he volunteered with English as a Second Language (ESL) conversation groups when he was still attending VIU classes in person in Nanaimo.
“Working with refugees and other international students at VIU, I see how merely saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ to a person in their own language creates connections that go beyond mere words. So I will always desire to learn languages for the rest of my life.”
James said that learning Spanish has opened his mind and has encouraged him to seek out opportunities he otherwise would not feel confident in pursuing.
“Learning another language requires me to become a kid again. It forces me to be okay with being embarrassed and seeing our world differently. I believe that these experiences, the ones that help me learn, have been invaluable in building in me a greater feeling of shared humanity in our world and it’s a lesson I will never take for granted.”
I can’t possibly write about language without recognizing that not everyone has access to formal education to learn a second language or is able to travel and pick up a new language. It’s also important to recognize that it is a very powerful thing to learn your own culture’s mother tongue. This point is especially relevant here in BC with many Indigenous peoples, each with their own language.
In 2010 the First People’s Heritage, Language and Culture Council put together a Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages where they wrote: “BC is home to 60 percent of the First Nations languages in Canada, with 32 languages and about 59 dialects. The diverse wealth of languages is at risk.”
Valentine Patterson is of the Raven clan Yahgujaanas on Haida Gwaii. Patterson’s extended family are involved in the revitalization of the Haida language, Xaad Kil. There are people who facilitate a Haida immersion program for children at school and for adults in the community.
“There are only 14 fluent Haida speakers left on Haida Gwaii as 95 percent of the Haida population was killed by three waves of smallpox, in addition to residential schools banning native languages,” Patterson said.
Patterson’s nonnie (grandmother) was known as a “silent speaker,” someone who understands the language but doesn’t speak it. Today, Patterson’s mother uses words with them that are Haida. They explained that they only know the words orally, so spelling has been improvised. Words like “Huksta” mean “hurry up” and “Kutla” means “go ahead.”
Patterson said there are more expressive sounds that just feel very Haida—sounds that make you feel seen by somebody when they think you’re being goofy or cute (“cchhh”), or even if you’re doing something gross (“eeeee”).
Their mother decided it was best for her and her children to move to Victoria when Patterson was two years old, and so they didn’t grow up surrounded by the Haida culture—but rather grew to know it through their mother.
“It makes me really sad to know that I’m not as connected to the language as my other family members who live there. It’s so sad to see how much language and culture can be lost even through one generation. I feel pretty disconnected sometimes.”
When Patteron’s nonnie passed away last March they felt a deep loss, as she was someone who connected them to their history and their roots and made them feel seen.
“It’s weird to go there without her there. She felt like home.”
They spoke about enjoying time spent with other nonnies when they visit Haida Gwaii—nonnie means “respected older one,” like community grandmothers.
“Seeing how they bastardize the English language and change it into their own thing and mix it with Haida can be really hilarious. It’s very cool how language is an alive thing. People change words as time goes on, and so it’s hard to rebuild something that hasn’t evolved like modern languages have.”
Patterson said that revitalizing the Haida language goes much deeper than words, but healing the language and community and reconnecting with the land is all part of it.
“There is a lot more happening than just learning words that sit in your brain. In our culture it was the raven [who] taught the Haida to speak, and the ravens on Haida, if you listen, make very guttural sounds and it reminds me of the language.”
There’s an old story called Golden Spruce that is told in Haida with English subtitles on Haida Gwaii’s language learning website. Along with courses, there’s even an app. Patterson is currently taking a Haida language class online that started this January.
In Canada, the majority of the population grows up learning English and some French in school. More recent immigrant families who speak their mother tongue at home with their parents pick up English at school and, often, through TV.
One thing I love about VIU is that it seems, in a regular year, that you can walk through the library and hear small conversations all happening in different languages, or someone talking on the phone in their mother tongue telling their mom about how it never stops raining here (sorry Spanish speakers whom I have accidentally eavesdropped on). It’s a humbling reminder of how little we understand about cultures beyond our own, and that there are endless ways to express oneself through language.