“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” -Charlemagne
Whenever I hear of someone who has the ability to speak several languages, I am at once filled with admiration and envy. I would love nothing more than to be able to converse with the locals when I travel to foreign parts of the world, or for that matter, with the various recent immigrants who have arrived in Canada.
Although I am able to decipher French in its written form (thanks to the talents of an excellent French teacher when I was in high school), I can’t seem to piece together a basic sentence in conversation. When it comes to Ukrainian, I can understand most of what is being spoken around me, but again, I become completely tongue-tied when someone asks me a simple question, so carrying on a conversation is a real challenge.
My parents often regretted the fact that they did not speak more Ukrainian when my brother and I were growing up. However, there is a reasonable explanation for their actions which is directly linked to the experiences they faced while growing up. Both were raised in homes where only Ukrainian was spoken, so when they began attending school, they were at a distinct disadvantage. They often faced ridicule by some of the English speaking students and my mother remembered being made to feel ashamed of her ethnicity. She also recalled some children receiving reprimands from the teacher when they spoke Ukrainian to each other. My parents did not want their children to face the same discrimination, so Ukrainian was not our first language spoken at home.
Such discrimination was nothing unusual for many Slavic immigrants to Canada. When they arrived by ship at the Halifax harbour, they were often met with hostile stares and rude comments. Remember that many people in the early 1900’s felt that only English-speaking immigrants should have been allowed to settle the West.
Our family has several stories about overcoming such attitudes, but I will relate only a couple of my favourites. I don’t recall the specifics about one involving my maternal grandfather, but I do remember talk about how my Moshel and his brother stood back to back, fists up and ready, prepared to take on some hooligans who were giving them a hard time. For some reason, I always smile when I picture my Moshel proudly prepared to defend his cultural identity.
My other favourite story is about my dad when he was a young student. Fed up with constant harassment and name-calling about being Ukrainian, he decided to stuff the bully’s mouth with a few horse turds. (Horses were often used as a means of transportation to school so such manure was readily available.) He was on the verge of getting kicked out of school by the board for his actions, but his father intervened and saved the day by informing the members of the types of abuse being heaped on his son and other students of Slavic backgrounds. Interestingly, the name calling stopped and everyone got along much better after that.
But not all issues were resolved that easily. My Boonka (maternal grandmother) often felt uncomfortable because she did not speak English very well. She particularly didn’t like dealing with impatient sales clerks or waitresses. On one occasion, when the waitress had forgotten to order an unbuttered sandwich for my grandmother, Boonka was prepared to go hungry rather than complain. She felt that she must be to blame because of her poorly-spoken English. Needless to say, I quickly rectified that situation and assured my grandmother that her language skills were not the problem and that she should never be made to feel inferior because of how she spoke.
These days a foreign accent is quite fashionable and even considered sexy by some. But sadly some people still have Old World views when it comes to poorly-spoken English. It might be best for all of us to remember our own roots, and to learn to practice patience and tolerance when it comes to dealing when recent immigrants.
As for me, I will continue to try to converse in languages other than English with hopes that when I do so, the native speakers of that tongue will applaud my efforts and encourage me to keep trying, not ridicule me.