Language: The Gift that Keeps on Giving (by Shelina Adatia)

Shelina Adatia is a PhD candidate in Societies, Cultures and Languages at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education. Her doctoral research focuses on the inclusion of culturally and linguistically diverse learners (i.e., learners whose first language is not English or French) in French Immersion. She is a recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship, awarded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and a 2019 SSHRC Storytellers finalist and winner of the Storytellers Engagement Prize. Her Storytellers video can be viewed here. Shelina is also a certified teacher at the Intermediate/Senior levels with the Ontario College of Teachers. Prior to commencing her graduate studies, she taught French as a Second Language classes at the secondary level.

’Tis the season, friends…for hand washing, social distancing and all-around coronavirus chronicling. The chaos of COVID-19, the global pandemic of our time, is upon us. While academics near and far transition to online teaching, and in some cases, extended break parenting, gift-giving is likely not top of mind. Recently, however, I discovered the gift of all gifts. A gift I’ve always had without fully appreciating its worth. Spoiler alert, friends – it’s not toilet paper! The gift I am referring to is none other than language – the gift that keeps on giving.

In September of 2019, my 93-year-old grandmother (nanima as we say in Gujarati) was hospitalized due to a spinal injury. During that time, she stayed in two hospitals with primarily English-speaking staff. Although my nanima is fluent in several languages, English is not one of them. While the hospital staff and her fellow patients did their very best to communicate via gestures, even learning some phrases in Gujarati, my nanima consistently struggled to communicate her needs – particularly given that she also suffers from dementia. In fact, the struggle was so great that my mom would go to the hospital every day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., to be the missing language link between my nanima and the hospital staff. Interestingly, while both hospitals regularly organized social events, such as Bingo, card games and sing-a-longs, these were not activities my nanima was accustomed to so she almost felt doubly excluded – both linguistically and culturally. Although I didn’t visit my nanima nearly as often as my mom, I could clearly sense her loneliness and isolation – especially when 7 p.m. rolled around.

My nanima (front) with hospital staff and my mom (second from left)                

In mid-November, my nanima was released from the hospital and was the happiest I’ve seen in a while. “Christmas came early”, her doctor lovingly joked. While she has since had her good and bad days, her overall attitude has visibility shifted in her transition from the hospital. As Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz would say, ‘there’s no place like home’.

My nanima and her great-grandchildren when leaving the hospital

Reflecting on my nanimas’s experience has reminded me that language is not only a tool for communication but also a tool for our overall sense of happiness and belonging. It is language that gave my mother the ability to bridge a significant linguistic gap; my grandmother, a renewed sense of happiness; and myself, the opportunity to benefit from my nanima’s wisdom. Indeed, I can say with certainty that had it not been for my grandparents and parents insisting that I maintain my Gujarati, I would currently be struggling to communicate with my nanima. Consequently, I would be missing out on the chance to laugh and learn from one of my very best friends.

Language is thus undoubtedly the gift that keeps on giving – even amidst the chaos of COVID-19. Although it is normally taboo to re-gift something, language is an exception to the rule. In fact, my four-year-old nephew and nanima regularly meet for their own version of temporarily virtual lunch ‘n learns – a linguistic and cultural exchange involving English, Gujarati, colours and undoubtedly, a bit of chaos!

My nanima and nephew

COVID-19 is a challenging time for us all but I encourage you to make time for spreading COVID kindness – an infectious practise that will never be cancelled. ’Tis the season, friends…not only for hand washing but also for re-gifting language, in all its forms, to younger and older generations.

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