2 Months & 4 Years

Struggling to learn Spanish in Guatemala gives me new insight into the immigrant experience in Canada.


 

The two-year-old stands impassively before me, struck dumb, perhaps, by my height and pallor.  Eager to practice her English, the young woman with her is not so reticent.  Gesturing at the little girl, she speaks with obvious pride.

My daughter.  She has two months and four years.

I eye the toddler again.  Even allowing for significant differences in build between Guatemalans and Canadians—or this Canadian, at any rate—it seems pretty clear that this chiquita is two, not four.  I do my best to smile winningly and then let it go—both my futile attempt to raise a reaction from this kid, and the mother’s confusion of ‘month’ and ‘year’.  After all, I know what she means.  Moreover, in this winter of 2004 I have been making similar mistakes in Spanish for weeks.   

After a few weeks, I head home to an old place made newly happy by the need not to think before, during and after all interactions.  Back in my own ’hood, downtown Ottawa, I have mental energy to spare for the first time in weeks, and what I notice is how many of the people I meet are not in my happy place.  They are certainly more fluent in English than I am in Spanish, but they’re working all the same.  For the first time, post-Guatemala, I have some understanding of this one aspect of the immigrant experience.  I can almost imagine what it must be like to move to a country where you don’t speak the language, planning to live there forever.

It’s a daunting thought, even without other challenges.  Family, friends, people who look like you–all left behind.  Always standing out, never quite blending with the crowd.  Different stores, banks, foods, customs, traffic laws.  Your children moving further away from your experience, every day.  And always, like a high-pitched whine in the back of your brain that won’t stop, the need to communicate in another language.  The need to think about everything you hear, everything you say.

Canada takes in about 250,000 immigrants annually: a number beyond our everyday experience.  Think of it this way: each work day, 1,000 immigrants arrive here, or enough to fill more than 30 classrooms at the local elementary school.  Over time, it adds up to a lot of people who might hear that high-pitched whine in the back of their brain whenever they step outside their home.

¿Hablan español?

My conversational victims are two Spanish-speaking bricklayers in our townhouse complex.  With the northern European heritage that even a two-year-old notices, I will never look like a native Spanish speaker and so they are caught off-guard, a little.  With the quality of my Spanish, I will never sound like a native speaker either, but they are delighted to speak their language, even with a beginner.  They are patient with my speed, or lack thereof, and with my mistakes.

I like the summer festivals and enjoy the different food and dances that our immigrant population and our immigration history entitle us to.  I love visiting the ethnic neighbourhoods of our larger cities.  I just hope that through the year, I can enjoy the other differences too, and be as patient in speaking with people struggling in their second language as so many have been with me.

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The August Civic Holiday is upon us – Revisit last year’s blog to read about the diversity – nay, the out-and-out confusion – with which it is celebrated across Canada.

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5 Comments

Filed under Language and Communication

5 Responses to 2 Months & 4 Years

  1. Ralph Gibson

    Some individuals enjoy this sort of diversity, and some clearly do not. Another axis of diversity, I suppose, if an unfortunate one. I encounter this in undergraduate students who seem to be unable/unwilling to deal with lecturers for whom English is a 2nd (at least) language.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Ralph – I guess maybe it’s easier to be easygoing about communication problems when the most that is at stake is ordering a meal or engaging in a casual conversation. I remember my undergrad philosophy prof telling hilarious stories about being at Oxford with a German-as-a-first-language prof, who had a thick accent. The whole class spent the whole term trying to figure out what one word was – and never did get it! I guess just going up after class and asking him to write it down wasn’t an option…

      • Isabel Gibson

        One reader routinely comments via email – this week’s response is too good not to share. At 876 months and 5 years, he notes that he is just a kid (only 5 years!)and still capable of everything that matters. “To hell with the months, I say!” Amen to that.

  2. Jim taylor

    A classmate of mine from India days (now alas deceased) writes movingly about her discovery that she was just “pasted on” to Indian culture. I have occasionally dreamed of emigrating to some warmer clime — usually about mid-January when there’s just as much winter ahead as I have already survived — but I always realize that no matter how hard I tried to get absorbed into the new culture, I would always be “pasted on.” New immigrants to Canada must have that feeling constantly as they struggle to keep alert to the unfamiliar nuances of a new culture.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I think ‘pasted on’ is a fabulous image. No wonder so many immigrants live in ethnic enclaves, where they can let down their guard. Where the same things ‘go without saying’. For some, I expect it’s exhausting – a bone-deep tired that never entirely goes away. Not being much of a joiner, myself, I’ve sort of contradictorily yearned after the sense of belonging that many Canadians have in their ethnic/cultural communities – but by the time I was old enough to identify and feel the lack, it was too late to join a group, even if they’d have had me!