What’s language got to do with it?

If you spent a day on any one of the University of Toronto’s three campuses, you would hear many — maybe dozens — of languages spoken by students, professors, and staff. The people here communicate with each other every day: in the hallways, in the classroom, in our writing and presenting. But how do our varying linguistic backgrounds impact that communication?

For some of us, this question hasn’t earned much thought over time. Perhaps we are native English speakers who have lived in an English-speaking context for the majority of our lives. Or maybe we are multilingual ourselves, and are so used to being flexible in how we communicate with others that it happens subconsciously. At either extreme and anywhere in the middle, it merits a pause to think about the veritable array of languages at play around us every day.

The Varsity spoke to just a sample of students with varying experiences with language. Some have faced completely new languages from scratch; others have gradually learned English through study or submersion. What is striking are the kinds of questions that came out of this conversation: What does your ability to speak a certain language tell you and others about who you are? How do we break down barriers when we can’t understand each other? And, at the end of the day, does the language we speak matter at all?


“I had to use Google Translate for menus to show them the translated word.”
Languages spoken: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, English


Sonia is an international student from Hong Kong. During her primary and secondary educations, it was compulsory for her to learn Cantonese, Mandarin, and English at the same time. Her mother, who grew up in Japan, spoke Japanese with her at home. Mastering four languages, however, doesn’t make a person impervious to linguistic challenges. Last summer, she found herself on a five-week summer abroad trip to Argentina, with no Spanish background at all.

“Their main language is Spanish. When I got there, I thought at least Argentinians would speak English at some level, but then [it] turned out they don’t at all. Everyone speaks only Spanish. Half the students that went with us had some sort of Spanish background, either their U of T major or Spanish courses. I have no background at all,” she describes.

“I was hoping I could at least ask for a coffee in English, but people were like ‘What are you saying?’ in Spanish back to me. I had the biggest problem there. I remember I had to use Google Translate for menus and show them the translated word to order a latte,” she adds,

Over time, Sonia found that she was able to learn some Spanish.

“Google Translate was really helpful,” she says. “I probably couldn’t have survived without that. It was also near where we were living for the first two weeks, we did some classes in a local university. There were a lot of local Argentinian students. From then on, we figured that university students are actually bilingual; they were different from the locals. They tend to speak more English compared to other people that live in the area. We talked to them, tried to make friends with them; they taught us some of the words that we could use.”

This experience made Sonia think about how much language really does matter to communication.

“I remember someone robbed [one of our group mates] and I had to come meet her at the police station,” she recalls. “It was so difficult to find the direction[s]. It was out of our neighbourhood, so we had to travel an hour away to another region, and we were trying to ask for directions. Oftentimes I’ll ask is it left or right and literally show them [the directions with my hands], but they had difficulty understanding us. If we [could] speak a little bit of Spanish then those body languages would be really helpful. But [since we couldn’t] speak at all, then it was hard to even start the conversation.”


“I am generally very conservative with language. I make a point to speak Urdu when I’m speaking Urdu, without any English adulterations.”
Languages spoken: Urdu, English, some Cantonese, Mandarin, and some regional dialects of Southeast Asia


Like Sonia, Taha is multilingual. He grew up in Pakistan; Urdu is his native tongue. However, he was also immersed in English from a young age, as it is the “official” language of business in Pakistan. As a result of this and of his experience at U of T, he has witnessed firsthand how globalization affects language, and what is at stake when languages are forgotten.

“I grew up being bilingual, so we kind of made a third language out of [Urdu and English] because it was kind of mixed together in that way,” he says. “Even now I don’t know a lot of words in English and/or Urdu and I mix the two together and get a third language. That’s what I’m used to: generally Urdu grammar with 60 per cent English words.”

“I think I am generally very conservative with language… I make it a point to try to speak Urdu when I’m speaking Urdu, without any English adulterations. And I make a point to speak English when I’m speaking English, without any Urdu adulterations. What I get from a lot of people who understand both languages is I speak like a newscaster when I’m speaking in Urdu. Because nobody speaks that way anymore, it’s this new hybrid language that people are speaking normally,” he says.

This means that something intrinsic is at risk of being lost, Taha says.

“I think there is value [in languages themselves] and the value lies largely in the historical literature of the language. The essence of a language is in its poetry and its prose. It tells you about emotions and things around you, the falling of autumn leaves and love and all these beautiful things that can’t be expressed otherwise. And all of these things, there’s a beauty, that essence, that romantic element would all be lost,” Taha describes.

He notices a similar effect on a personal level.

“My sense of humour may be fantastic in Urdu,” he explains. “I get that all the time when I talk to my brother and so on, but in English I’m just not quick-witted enough; my answers don’t flow in the same way.”

“You can have Siri in Indian English now, because you can use that hybrid language. It allows you to do that. You’ve got terms like ‘Hinglish’ that exist. It’s cool in its own way, but it’s also scary for someone like myself,” he adds.

Globalization is a real concern for Taha.

“There’s something I heard recently: South Asia was colonized after the colonizers left. That’s when our hearts and minds were actually colonized. My grandfather went to Cambridge back in the ’30s. Everyone wanted to be English and act English and start wearing English clothes and talk in a certain way,” he says.

“The definition of becoming cultured was going to Britain,” he adds.


“If I discuss in English, I tend to be a little bit more radical.”
Languages spoken: German, English


Tom is an international student from Germany with a long-standing connection to Canada. His family used to come to Toronto for a few weeks every summer. Tom is now fluent, but learned English fairly recently and intensively. He studied the language since grade six in Germany, and went to Cambridge for nine months before coming to the University of Toronto. Now, he says that, though he is fluent in English, for him it will never be like a native tongue.

“What’s still a little bit of a challenge is to speak in front of the class if it’s a huge lecture,” he explains. “It’s not that easy to make your point because if you hear those other students who are the good students, of course they play with the language in such a sophisticated way; they sound so professional. So because English is not your first language you can’t sound that sophisticated. It’s a lot about sounding smart. It’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it.”

Tom says that he still picks up on colloquialisms, watches movies in English, and even thinks English grammar is easier than his native language.

“I recently read a study where if people talk in a language that is a foreign language, they use their feelings less. The question of the experiment was whether people were willing to sacrifice someone for some greater good,” he describes. “In their own language, people were less likely to sacrifice that person, but in a foreign language they were more willing to do that. So I think there’s some emotional way that our native language speaks to our feelings and our emotions that apparently other languages cannot do.”

Tom has noticed this at play in his own life.

“I’ve noticed that on myself a little bit, that if I discuss in English, I tend to be a little bit more radical. Just slightly — it’s not that I completely change my point of view. In German I consider things in a different way. Same with movies. I watch a movie in English, I understand everything by now but I can’t feel them in the same way that I can feel German movies. So even if it’s an American movie I sometimes prefer to watch it in the German version,” he says.


“I remember being really embarrassed that I didn’t know what that means and at the same time feeling like I was being bullied just because I didn’t know this language.”
Languages spoken: Mandarin, English

Alice’s family came to Canada briefly in 1999 and permanently when she was in grade four. Now she says that she has been here long enough that both Mandarin and English feel like first languages to her. She still remembers what it was like to learn a brand new language, and is reminded to this day of the sorts of power dynamics language barriers can create.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I first came to Canada in grade four, is a memory of mine,” she recalls. “I was struggling with English at first. There was this kid — I can remember his face really clearly. He had a basketball in his hand. It was a pretty sunny day. We were called back in from recess. On my way back I remember him looking at me and he’s like, ‘Why do you look so dumb?’”

“At that time I was like, what does that word mean? I forced myself to remember that word, and then I went back home and I asked my dad what the word dumb meant, and I remember we were both flipping through the English to Mandarin dictionary and looking up the word dumb only to find out… it means dumb. I remember being really embarrassed that I didn’t know what that means and at the same time feeling like I was being bullied just because I didn’t know this language,” she says.

Aside from the occasional grammatical error, Alice says that she rarely thinks about English as a second language anymore. However, on a summer abroad trip to Hong Kong, she noticed again the kind of social repercussions that can result from language differences.

“When I was in [Hong Kong], for example, I didn’t speak Cantonese, and I feel like everywhere I went I was a traveller and a foreigner,” she explains. “It was certainly in the [Hong Kong] culture to act differently toward people that didn’t speak the language. Not to say that they’re deliberately being rude to you, but even so, just because I didn’t understand the culture, and I didn’t speak the language, I felt very excluded to ask anybody anything.”

“I think language certainly signifies a hierarchy of whether or not you know it,” Alice adds. “If you don’t know it, then it’s  automatically assumed that you’re a lower status, even though you might not be.”