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What bilingualism means to me

Speaking two languages has been a part of my life for a long time. Although I wasn’t fully bilingual when I joined the government in 1990, working in Ottawa allowed me to perfect my second language skills, as I spoke English with my Anglophone colleagues whenever I had the chance. And outside of work, I spoke French all the time.

So you could say I led a pretty balanced bilingual life. Having the opportunity to regularly speak two languages gave me a good sense of the value of bilingualism.

A new opportunity reinforced the value of bilingualism for me

In 2015, I accepted a position in the Atlantic Region and moved to Halifax, a city where English is the main language.

As I settled into my new role, I soon saw that, while people were shy to speak to me in French, many of them had a genuine interest in the language and culture. And it wasn’t from a lack of desire to learn that they hadn’t become totally fluent in French, but rather from a lack of opportunities to practise. My team and I wanted to change that.

We started by organizing “help me practise” Wednesdays, an activity to give people the chance to practise French or English with each other. Then we launched a number of other activities to promote bilingualism. For example, we partnered with the Quebec Region to put in place a language exchange program so people could help each other improve in French or English. We also offered tools to help people practise their second language every day.

Collaborative activities like these made people enthusiastic about learning their second language.

The greatest benefit of bilingualism is learning another culture

As people practised speaking French and English with each other, they learned about the culture of the other language. They came to share their diverse ideas, experience and opinions. The richness of that exchange between my colleagues in Halifax, a primarily Anglophone environment, reinforced for me the value of sharing not only one’s language but also one’s culture. It’s clear to me that learning another culture opens us up to new ways of thinking and doing. And to me, that is where the true value of bilingualism lies!

I’d like to hear from you. How has speaking two or more languages added value to your life? Let me know in the comments below!