[Late last year, I had a chance to spend a few days in Montreal, my first extended visit to the city. Among the many reasons I loved it was the plethora of compelling spaces and ways through which the city remembers its social, cultural, and artistic histories. So this week I’ll CanadianStudy a few such spaces, leading up to a special post on a few Canadian colleagues!]
On two ways Montreal’s bilingualism can serve as a model for America.
If many of the week’s historical and cultural issues I’ve highlighted in this week’s posts would be present in any Canadian (or American) city, there’s one very clear element that distinguishes Montreal (and most of the province of Quebec of which it’s part) from them: its ubiquitous bilingualism. Because my traveling companion speaks French and wanted to honor this part of the city, virtually every encounter we had—from restaurant waitstaff to store clerks, museum docents to public transporation employees, and many more—was conducted in a combination of Anglais and French. And we never encountered a single person who could not switch between the two languages effortlessly, nor one who seemed unready or unwilling to do so. I’m sure there are Montreal residents who know or prefer only French (and I know there are broader political issues at play when it comes to language and identity in Quebec), but on a communal level Montreal is by far the most consistently and thoroughly bilingual city in which I’ve spent any time.
As such, Montreal can serve as a clear model for how American cities might evolve into a more fully bilingual future. Although “Press 1 for Spanish” has become an easy touchstone for conservative fears (to be clear, and I hope obviously, I don’t endorse a single word of that article) about a changing national identity, the truth is that such accommodations have arisen because of the growing community of Spanish speakers across the United States. Indeed, as of the 2010 census some major cities (such as Miami and Anaheim) and many smaller ones (such as Laredo, Texas and Lawrence, Massachusetts) already featured Hispanic majorities. It would seem to be a logical step for those cities—and many others across America, if not the nation as a whole—to strive to cultivate a genuinely bilingual identity, not just in recognizing or including both languages (as has already begun to happen in at least those “Press 1” kinds of ways) but in helping educate a citizenry who (like Montreal’s) all speak both shared tongues. Besides the clear intellectual and neurological benefits of bilingualism for individuals, this shift would help our communities become more united and engaged, more in conversation in both literal and figurative ways.
Yet as I’ve long argued, both in this space and in my books, America has been multilingual throughout its history, and Montreal thus also offers a lesson in how we think about our past. Virtually every major American city could foreground its multlingual past more fully, after all: New Orleans would be the obvious starting point (and as I’ve written here does do so in some key ways), as would California cities like San Diego (and ditto); but it would be interesting and important to think as well about how New York might include Dutch in its collective memories, how Detroit could do so for French, how all of Alaska could do so for Russian, and so on. All of those languages and cultures/communities remain present in those places today, but again it’s not just about the present—it’s just as significant to remember these linguistic histories, and in so doing to engage with their contributions to the places’ and our nation’s identities. In that way, after all, Montreal is no more bi- or multilingual than are most American cities and communities—and can offer a valuable model for how we might begin to better remember that side of ourselves.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Sites of collective memory you’d highlight?
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