An exploration of Canadians’ ability to function in two languages: imperial and metric.
If you’re bilingual, you’re going to have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Gary Small, in conversation with Allan Gregg
Hey! I’m in. No, not that whole Official Languages thing: I’d say that the Ship of French has already sailed, but not many ships even dock in Alberta. And no, not that Spanish thing either: I get by, but can’t claim to be bilingual.
I do, however, speak both of Canada’s unofficial languages: metric and imperial. In fact, my extensive scientific survey indicates that you’re bilingual too. How extensive was that survey, you ask? How scientific? Let me tell you.
I polled lawyers, pilots, managers, nurses, logisticians, machinists, engineers, mathematicians, and artists. I polled full-time workers, part-timers, work-from-homers, stay-at-homers, and retirees. At least one of each.
I polled people in two provinces and three cities. I polled Canadians, Americans, people who’ve lived practically on the border, and people who’ve lived on both sides of it (no, not at the same time). I polled city and country residents; house and condo dwellers; and people older and younger than me (no, not in the same person, do try to keep up).
I polled friends and relations; anglophones and francophones; introverts and extroverts; theoreticians and experimentalists.
Could any study be more comprehensive?
As for the scientific part, I asked standard questions and also gave the opportunity for write-ins. I tabulated responses so I could compare them; I saved responses so I could look at them later. Wow. Could any study be more rigorous?
So I present my results with complete confidence. Even if it’s not quite the bilingualism presumably intended by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canadians from thirty-something to uncomfortably close to seventy can now join John F. Kennedy in his inspirational assertion, Ich bin ein Bilinguer.
Here’s what my study indicates about how we metric/imperial bilingual Canadians spend our days.
We start the day at home with an (imperial) cup of coffee. Driving to work we slightly exceed the speed limits posted in (metric) kilometres, in a car whose approximate weight we know in (imperial) pounds and whose gas tank we fill with (metric) litres of fuel. At work, we set document margins in (either) inches or centimetres. If we liven up the document with a photo, we first consider its resolution in pixels per (imperial) inch. We fill the printer with paper defined in (imperial) inches and select print quality in dots per (imperial) inch.
At lunch, we buy a can of pop in (metric) millilitres and weigh our selection from the salad bar in (metric) grams. We’re eating light so our (imperial) height-to-weight ratio doesn’t get out of hand. At (either) 70F or 21C, it’s a lovely day for a walk around the (neither metric nor imperial) block. As we stand indecisively in front of the mail slot at the post office—Do we have enough postage, or no?—we realize that we have no idea what either thirty (metric) grams or one (imperial) ounce feels like, but we have a vague notion that going metric offers the better value here.
Heading home after work, we stop at the lumber yard to buy some (imperial) two-by-fours and a (metric) litre of paint; at the liquor store to buy three-quarters of a (metric) litre of wine; and at the grocery store to buy fresh salmon, asparagus and grapefruit, priced by (both) kilogram and pound on the floor and weighed in (only metric) grams at the checkout.
Supper preparation sees us measuring spices by the (imperial) teaspoon into the specified number of (metric) millilitres of ketchup to flavour the home-made barbeque sauce for our (imperial) quarter-pound burger.
After supper, we enjoy a hobby. Artists measure objects with a (conflicted) ruler showing (imperial) inches each divided into ten (metric inspired?) units that have no name. Genealogists fill the (imperial) three-by-four or four-by-six slots in their photo albums with family photographs. Knitters start new projects, choosing the needles in their collection that are closest to whatever the pattern calls for, whether metric or US sizing.
On the weekend we clean our houses, whose area we know in (imperial) square feet. At the mall, our frustrated search for a standardized size drives us to the jeans store, where we can buy in (imperial) inches for waist and inseam. We may take our thirty (neither metric nor imperial) horsepower speedboat out for a spin, or go paddling in our thirteen (imperial) foot kayak. Back in the workshop, we grab two wrenches (one imperial, one metric) to tighten the tap. As we hang a picture, we advise our partner to move it just a few (imperial) inches to the left.
Dropping into our (imperial? monarchical?) queen- or king-size beds, exhausted, we realize that we forgot to turn out the (it sure sounds metric) hundred (yes, yes, it’s metric, but who knew?) watt light in the front room.
Bilingualism may protect against Alzheimer’s—Would I argue with a fellow scientist?—but there is no help to be had for just plain old everyday forgetfulness.
PS: This piece is in belated honour of the thirtieth anniversary of the safe landing of the Gimli Glider on 23 July 1983.