The value of diversity

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Thanksgiving Day, to many, is a time to be shared with the family. I spent this past Sunday with my family back in my hometown. I had a bit of a frustration this weekend, though. Coming from an Italian background on my father’s side, it’s sometimes difficult to try to talk to my nonna (grandmother) because she speaks very little English.

The two of us have had this struggle in communication for as long as I can remember, and a lot of the time it can be very frustrating for both of us.
My nonna was born and raised in Sicily, an island just off of Italy, and she moved here when she was in her early 30s — learning only the basics of the English language.

Of the nine children she had, only two were born in Sicily; the rest were born when she moved to Canada. Amongst the seven that were born here was my father. I was born when my father was 35. Although he spoke the language he was brought up with towards me, I had always answered him in English.
As I look back on it now, it seems strange to me why I had never learned to speak Italian.

When I looked around on Sunday at my entire family speaking a different language I could understand them, but I couldn’t fulfill my desire to join in with them. This is why I think the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism should be more stressed in and among families.

According to Susan Munroe, quoting from the 2001 Census Statistics on Languages in Canada, “nine out of ten people in Canada still speak either the English or French languages at home … Only ten per cent spoke a language other than English or French at home, compared to 18 per cent who reported another language as their mother tongue.”

Due to Canada being known for its multiculturalism, this fact is astonishing.
It suggests that many people whose native language is different from English or French do not speak it on a daily basis. It makes me all the more interested in learning Italian.

My dad was raised with the Italian culture, Sicilian “slang” being his first language (slang because it’s neither proper nor close to Italian). But of course living in Canada — and English being one of the official languages — he learned to speak the way everyone else did.

He continued with the Canadian way of living outside his home and went back to Italian inside his home.

I guess that Canadian way took its stance in his life as the dominant culture to which he would live the rest of his life.

Seeing myself, and my other siblings, as the result of Canada’s powerful influence on my father makes me feel regretful for not having the desire to learn my culture’s language earlier on. I see the look of disappointment on my nonna’s face when I tell her I don’t understand, and I recognize her pain to watch her grandchildren rejecting their Italian heritage.

I’m currently taking the Italian course here at Wilfrid Laurier University and I hope to complete the entire four years of courses that are offered.
Though the language I’m currently learning is not the same as the one my nonna uses, she will understand what I say.

It’s my decision to make the effort to learn a completely different language that makes her so happy. I feel that if English is anyone’s first language, they too should attempt to learn the language of their cultural background.
Cultural diversity is important — especially in Canada, where acceptance is practiced readily.

English is the most difficult language to learn, but since most of us have already learned it, why not try our luck with another one?
If those of you who want to learn a different language have relatives that speak it themselves, then I’d encourage you to stick with it and perhaps one day surprise them.

The looks of happiness my whole family gives me really shows me that I’m making them proud — and that I made the right decision to pursue my cultural heritage.


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