I speak, therefore I am

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Posted: 
May 14, 2018
Written by: Pascale Bourque

In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes penned his famous deduction “I think, therefore I am.” Recently, however, I had an experience that made me wonder: couldn’t we also say “I speak, therefore I am”?

I speak fast, and I speak a lot. Some would say I speak too much. But those who say that know that I exist: they listen to me, answer me, engage me in conversation. They contradict me and sometimes even agree with me! They make me grow and evolve.

But it’s not enough simply to speak. Speaking means nothing if no one listens to us or understands us. Speaking someone else’s language is a way of reaching out to that person, a way of embracing and accepting them. It means being open to their culture and acknowledging their existence.

 

Speaking is a way of reaching out

During a recent trip to a Spanish-speaking region, I quickly realized how spontaneously the hotel staff and the local residents adopted my companion, who, unlike me, speaks Spanish very well. Of course, I was able to make myself understood in English, and I was made to feel welcome; but my friend … he got the royal treatment! He spoke the language: he was somebody! Whereas I was just another tourist… Who isn’t charmed when we give them the gift of speaking their language? When we make the effort, even if we’re shy or awkward about it. It’s like a magic spell! When we speak their language, we show people that they matter in our eyes. In many cases, it makes them see us differently!

Learning is good; speaking is better

I learned English in school, but I never really spoke it until I took a job in an English-speaking community, in a very isolated region. If I hadn’t spoken the language, I would never have integrated into that little northern village with no highway access to the rest of Quebec. I didn’t have that kind of incentive with Spanish. I studied the language, but I never spoke it. I forgot everything.

Opening my ears during my recent trip also opened my eyes. I understood all the power that a few words in the other person’s language can hold. Learning a language can bring us many benefits, such as better career opportunities, and open many doors. However, it’s only by taking the risk of speaking this new language that we find the real reward behind those doors. We have to speak it often and everywhere. It doesn’t matter if we speak it badly or imperfectly; we must speak it anyway. The real reward is that we exist for one more person, someone different … someone whose language we speak! This trip made me decide to take up Spanish again.

Have you had a similar experience? One that opened your eyes to the importance of speaking the language of another? Do you speak a foreign language? Are you studying one?

Translated by: Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Pascale Bourque

Pascale Bourque is in love with the French language, its richness, subtlety and complexity. As a professional and an expert in human performance, she never gets tired of discovering new, more useful, compelling, sweet or alluring words! Even her simplest messages are punctuated with plays on words that are a source of entertainment to her family and friends, Anglophones and Francophones alike. She delights above all in repartee, as it keeps language truly alive.

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Excellent, excellente, exelente, eccelente … I agree it's always fun and educational to play with words and languages. When I was a young traveller, I met many Europeans who spoke several languages, so I returned home to Canada and took up French. This enriched my life. I also studied Mandarin Chinese for awhile, but never became proficient. Never say never; it could still happen! Lately, partly due to public discourse on truth and reconciliation with Canada's First Nations, I've been thinking of learning an Aboriginal language, such as Cree. Statistics Canada (census) has lots of information on the many Aboriginal languages currently spoken in Canada; there are several Cree languages (within the largest Aboriginal language family, Algonquian). I figure that learning a little Cree, to a beginner level for starters, is one way to participate in reconciliation, while gaining cultural insights and understanding.

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