In translation: Guofang Li’s approach to multilingualism in Vancouver

There have been efforts to promote linguistic diversity in Vancouver – you might notice Chinese characters on storefronts or see Musqueam street names in Halq’eméylem during your trek across campus. However, can people actually take advantage of these multilingual resources if they can’t read the text on them and are not supported in learning how to do so?

Language and literacy education professor Dr. Guofang Li recently delivered a keynote presentation entitled “Multilingualism as a Gift: Changing Mindsets, Changing Worlds” at UBC’s Arts Multilingual Week, which ran from October 31 to November 4. Her main focus was to illustrate how linguistic diversity is increasing, but younger generations are using certain mother tongues less and less.

Li's talk primarily discussed the experiences of Chinese immigrants, organized with the department of Asian studies.

Other events throughout the week largely focused on a theme of decolonization — Canada’s national languages are not its first languages. This was recognized through a collaboration with FirstVoices, an online Indigenous language resource which led a seminar on digital language revitalization strategies.

Many studies have pointed out the cognitive, socioeconomic, sociocultural and psychological benefits of bilingualism, yet we still fail to prioritize language learning and preservation. This is especially detrimental in a city like Vancouver, which boasts a huge international presence.

As a mother, Li empathized with parents who are struggling to instill the importance of multilingualism in their children. She recounted a particular visit to her son’s school, during which he shut down her attempts to communicate with him in the language they use at home. He had internalized the policies promoted by this school, as well as by many other Canadian institutions, of only communicating in English or French.

Many provinces encourage French language learning, but their lack of fully-developed policies that support education on other languages demonstrates how they are not accurately reflecting the multilingual realities of Canada.

She presented a survey that asked immigrant parents to rank language importance, and an overwhelming majority believed knowing English was the most important skill for their children to have, even if that meant sacrificing other languages. Far too few parents recognize the benefits of multilingualism or simply give up on trying to teach their kids, who lack motivation or are too embarrassed to speak their parent’s language.

English second language (ESL) programs are not prioritized and tend to be heavily stigmatized. Teachers are not necessarily trained to work with multilingual learners. Li described how some educators she encountered tended to harbour negative perceptions of ESL students, thinking of them as “problem students.” The students themselves recognized the judgment they may face for not having English as their first language, prompting them to hide the fact that they are in the ESL stream.

Despite seeing UBC as an English-medium university, Li has hope for the future due to projects that encourage linguistic diversity and language preservation, such as the Arts Multilingual Week. She emphasized that international students must be engaged when promoting language learning; students need to see their ethnic and linguistic identities more often represented as scholars and researchers in order for them to feel supported in academia.

Li left her audience with a quote from Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “If you know all the languages of the world and you do not know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is self enslavement.” Multilingualism is “a gift you can give to yourself,” she said — an ability that should never be the cause of shame or embarrassment.