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photo illustration by Mico Mazza

How students can preserve their

native language on campus

THERE ARE MANY students on campus whose first language isn’t French or English. This news may not be groundbreaking considering multiculturalism is a defining feature of life in Canada.

“We are blessed to have multiculturalism in Canada because all institutions encourage culture,” says Abdallah Obeid, U of O professor of Arabic studies.

Although Canada is practically synonymous with multiculturalism, students may face obstacles to keeping their native tongue here on campus. Whether there are enough people to practice with or not enough class hours in which to study the finer points of the language, some U of O professors shed light on how to practice speaking in your native language.

Obeid points out that confidence is key to preserving a language. Many students who speak Arabic at home or with friends will gain the confidence necessary to continue speaking their native language later on in life. It is fair to apply this rule to all languages, not necessarily Arabic alone.

“Languages are best practised in social settings. However, if a club or conversational circle is not feasible, you can find forums and ‘tandem’ partners in your language online,” explains Joerg Esleben, University of Ottawa modern language professor.

Students can also look towards social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which help students engage in the communication development of processing information in their first language. Video sharing, email exchanges, and even music can help enhance the listening, reading, and writing process.

“The Internet offers a more mediated alternative. In particular, online comments and discussion forums from the target culture are a treasure trove for slang and idiomatic expressions, as are pop songs, ads, and TV series targeting young people,” says Esleben.

After analyzing language courses offered by the University of Ottawa, as well as the written and oral habits of students, the question arises as to whether the courses offered on campus are enough to maintain students’ mother tongues.

“The problem is that the [Arabic and other languages] courses that are offered at the University of Ottawa are on the basis of four hours per week. Students practice their grammar, structure, and are able to write some exercises… but they have difficulty in speaking it,” explains Obeid. “You can see the big difference here. There are no places for these students to go and practice [except for the] scholarships to travel [abroad] … to get some practice.”

Students also need to examine their motivation to excel in their language studies. If the courses offered at the U of O aren’t enough, then it’s up to the student to take the initiative to keep on practicing their language.

“The most important asset in learning a language is self-motivation. Don’t wait passively for instructors or textbooks to fill your heads with the language; go out and find and organize other learners and speakers of the language, make your own personalized use of the wealth of print, audiovisual, and online materials around you,” says Esleben.

Obeid encourages students to get more involved in the University of Ottawa cultural clubs, particularly those which encourage linguistic studies. To maintain and enhance full practice of students’ native languages, Obeid supports students in beginning a club from scratch at the U of O that will bring students together to share same-language conversation over coffee.

“I encourage all [students] to learn their [native] language first, and then learn English and French as well. It is important to be immersed in both official languages. I encourage you to read more books, and mistakes are natural even if people laugh. Learn more than one, two, or three languages because competition is fierce in the employment field,” he says.

—Tamara Tarchichi