The Advantages of Multilingualism
Jacques Rebuffot and Claudette Tardif

For the past 30 years, Canada has played a leadership role in the respect of cultural and linguistic diversity and in the promotion of language skills. The implementation of the Official Languages Act and the efforts in favour of bilingualism nationally aree important accomplishments. Canada's experience in official language education is recognized internationally as one of the most interesting and effective educational phenomenons, most particularly the immersion phenomenon. The Canadian immersion model is being tested in several European countries, the United States and Australia, with modifications of course.

The development of international exchanges have made the mastery of two or three languages an essential asset in the modern world. The "language barrier" has to be overcome due to ever increasing international relations. The White Paper on Education and Training: Teaching and Learning - Towards the Learning Society, that the European Commission has just released, proposes among its key orientations the mastery of three European languages. In June of 1995, the Cannes European Council emphasised the importance of respecting linguistic diversity. For its part, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on multilingualism. In his message to the members of the Higher Council of the French Language on October 24, 1995, Alain Juppe, then Prime Minister of France, stated that "the promotion of multilingualism, along with the respect of the cultural exception, is a part of our project for the 21st century."

What is Canada's position in relation to all these European developments? The situation is clear: if Canada does not take the means to favour multilingualism in the area of education. What is Canada's position inWhat is Canada's position in relation to all these European developments? The situation is clear: if Canada does not take the means to favour multilingualism in the area of education.

The aese of traveling, the intensification of immigration and the presence of new populations in Canada's socio-cultural landscape are engendering a more and more pressing need to learn languages other than English and French. Faced with a situation similar to that of Europe where the knowledge of several languages responds to the intensification of exchanges and communications, the advantages of individually mastering several languages, multilingualism in other words, is being felt by many. Multilingulaism indeed presents advantages in many ares: individually, socio-culturally, economically and politically.

Individually, the aquisition of one or several foreign languages by a young child in school favours improved intellectual development. For example, it is acknowledged that the learning of other languages promotes a more solid mastery of one's mother tongue. In learning other languages, children are freed from the linguistic forms of their mother tongue that they use subconsiously. Learning and using other languages allow them to become aware of their learning process and that of others. The ability to express the same thought in different languages helps people become aware that a language is only one means of communicating. Learning a language other than one's own allows the learner to better understand those who speak that language.

Socially, multilingulism promotes relations between different linguistic communities. Although it may not always create harmony between communities which share the same institutions, it nevertheless facilitates interactions between them, the exchange of ideas and even the development of common social objectives. Learning a language other than one's own, or even seeveral languages, is also a means of demonstrating that we want to become "cultural intermediaries" who want to eradicate social divisions that still too often separate members of different linguistic communities. Multilingualism has a mediating effect by promoting the passage over the invisible boundary between the unknown and the known as well as between the refusal and acceptance of differences. The understanding of others leads to acceptance. Acceptance promotes tolerance and the diversification of one's vision of the world.

Economically, the more developed countries in North America and Europe have recently created large organisations in order to increase trade. Such groups are also beginning to take shape in developing countries. In such contexts, multilingualism facilitates exchanges and becomes an asset in the sale of products abroad. The mayor of an important city in the state of Maine, for example, argued recently that to buy merchandise from the international market, one needs only to speak of semblance of English to get by. However, he added that in order to entice foreign buyers, you have to speak their language. "Being able to speak French is having a second window on the planet."

Politically, multilingualism is an asset that politicians know how to use well. We all remember President John Kennedy's declaration to Berliners in 1961: "Ich bin ein Berliner!" in order to demonstrate his country's support during the Cold War. During the Francophone Summit held in Hanoi in November 1997, the President of the French Republic stated that in the 21st century, large linguistic communities will play a very significant role in politcal agendas.

Therefore, whether we like it or not, the world of tomorrow will remain multilingual. Educating people to be multilingual is not only offering a reflection of the various socio-linguistic and socio-cultural realities, it is also a means of defending this diversity.
 
 
 
 
 

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