Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Congratulations to my Friend Michael

I met my friend Michael Hornsby about thirty years ago (my goodness, that sounds like a long time) when we were both studying in Wales. He's an Irish Jewish Englishman, a professor of Celtic languages, lives in Germany, and teaches Welsh in Poland. You can't get more interesting than that! He has had a book come out this month, Revitalizing Minority Languages, a study of new speakers of Breton, Yiddish, and Lemko -- and that mixture alone tells you something about the breadth of his knowledge and the scope of his expertise! From the summary of the book, it appears it discusses how learners who are not raised speaking a language purposefully acquire it, and how these efforts are affecting the survival and promotion of languages that may otherwise be in danger of dwindling. Michael is the perfect person to conduct this research, and it's a pertinent topic for Canadians. There are pockets of Gaelic and great swaths of French and a jillion other languages spoken here, with sometimes more speakers of the language in Canada than there are in the language's place of origin. The differences between a language as it is spoken in Canada and how it is spoken in other countries has always intrigued me. When a language is brought to a new place and isolated from its parent tongue, it becomes a new creature. Or rather, it evolves along different paths than its parent.

I moved to Canada in 1989, and at the time I had undertaken extensive French training, all through high school and university. I fancied myself fairly fluent in it, and after all, I could read Maeve Binchy novels in French -- what more proof did I need of my own ability? Well, I got a job when I arrived in Canada doing word processing for a pharmaceutical company, putting together a French newsletter with contributions from about forty French sales reps. The written stuff was okay, but when I had to speak to any of them on the phone, it was a disaster. They may as well have been speaking Hungarian, for all I could understand them. How could this be? I spoke French, didn't I? It wasn't just the speed, it was the odd vowels, the slang, the abrupt cutting off of syllables. I was humbled pretty quickly, let me tell you. The French I'd learned was Parisian (with a touch of Tahitian thrown in), but this Quebecois stuff was a different bird altogether.

When I met Michael all those years ago, I was attempting to learn Welsh generations after my family had ceased to speak it, and I have a keen interest in seeing that beautiful language survive and thrive. So the topic of his book appeals to me on that level. It's been decades since I studied linguistics, but after reading the reviews of this book, I can feel that little itch to get back into the field. There are so many interesting things to learn around us, and language is such a vital part of our identities. And here in Toronto I am living in the absolute best place to study languages.

Llongyfarchiadau, Michael! I can't wait to read your work.

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