Aanikh Kler is just 11 years old, but already he understands the linguistic responsibility he bears on behalf of his future family.
“I’ll feel really bad for my children if I don’t speak Punjabi. It’s like a big disappointment to the family,” he says.
That worry has proven a powerful motivator for even this confident youth, whose family first arrived in Canada from India in 1906. In that time, no one in the family has broken the language chain.
It’s one of the main reasons Kler so readily agreed to spend two weeks of his precious summer holidays inside a classroom at Surrey’s Simon Fraser University campus.
Here, Kler — along with little brother Amaan, 8, and a dozen or so other kids — is learning the basics of his ancestral language.
Kler’s parents have a higher ambition for their sons.
“There is a beauty in understanding your own language,” says Ajeet Kler, the boys’ mom.
“Who we are and who we will always be is where we came from,” she adds.
No doubt, thousands of Metro residents — many of them the children of immigrants or expatriates — would agree as language groups and camps sprout up with increasing frequency both online and in person across the region. Participants are discovering that learning another language is not only an important way to hold on to part of their culture, but it also gives them an advantage in the global marketplace.
“There are so many more organizations now that have a global reach,” said Tony Botelho, SFU’s manager of career services, which advises students on job-hunting tips.
For Vancouver resident Mike Kelly, the Internet has proven an invaluable tool in his efforts to maintain a connection with his Irish roots.
Kelly, 76, grew up in Ireland, where he was schooled in the original Irish Gaelic language, as well as English.
Kelly left home at 17 years old and hasn’t lived in Ireland since. Nevertheless, nearly six decades later, his ability to speak the language of his childhood remains an integral part of his being.
“I feel I wouldn’t be Irish if I didn’t speak it,” he says.
But finding other Irish speakers on the West Coast has not been easy.
His brother and sister, both of whom also live in Vancouver, don’t speak much of the language, and neither do his children.
As for his friends, “I know more Englishmen than Irishmen,” he says.
Small Irish-language meet-up groups do exist in the city, and Kelly occasionally meets with other Irish speakers over coffee. However, he’s found few people locally share his level of fluency.
So Kelly has instead turned to Skype and e-mail to connect with Irish speakers worldwide. There he can both practise the language and expand his own vocabulary, which he admits is “a bit old-fashioned” compared to modern-day speakers.
“The Gaelic I learned is the language of farmers and fishermen,” he says.
Kelly is also enjoying doing his bit to perpetuate the language, which suffered a dramatic decline in fluent speakers over the last century.
“It was considered the language of the poor,” Kelly says.
These days, he adds, “It’s becoming the language of the middle class and the well-educated.”
Botelho says job-seekers should always highlight additional language skills they might have on their resumes.
Many employers, such as the federal government, demand up front that applicants be, at the very least, bilingual in French and English.
Private enterprises, however, are often more interested in other languages, depending on the market they are trying to reach. These days, says Botelho, Asian-language speakers are in high demand among employers courting business connections in economic centres such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and India.
But even languages that might be considered less desirable in the global market are valuable assets.
“It’s a unique feature of yourself … one of those things that can really differentiate you from other people,” Botelho says.
To linguistic anthropologist Christine Schreyer of the University of B.C. Okanagan, language is an opportunity to examine the history and culture of generations past.
Schreyer is working with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in northern B.C. to restore and preserve their original language, Lingit. She’s also initiated a similar project in Papua New Guinea to restore Kala, an endangered native language.
Lessons of language
At its core, language can tell us where and how its speakers lived, what they ate and how relationships were structured.
“The language you speak comes from a certain place and a particular landscape,” says Schreyer. Different place names, for instance, tell stories about how the people travelled through the land, while plant names may explain the local diet.
“People have such connection, particularly indigenous people, with their language … You learn more about cultures [and] get to know the people a lot better that way,” Schreyer says.
Nearly two weeks into the SFU Punjabi camp, Aanikh Kler and his young classmates have leapt well ahead in their ability to both comprehend and converse in the language, thanks mainly to teacher Sarbjit Dharmi’s lesson planning that combines learning with fun.
The kids all know now that a “kadha” is an old-fashioned clay water jug after completing an art project saw them illustrate the object using lentils and other beans commonly found in a traditional Indian diet.
They’ve also each designed a “pakhi” or hand fan, which Dharmi says ladies in the small villages still use, built a little oil lamp, or “diva,” to show off during Diwali celebrations, and learned several traditional songs and dances.
Parents of the students say they are pleased with the early results.
“My kids didn’t know any letter of the alphabet and now they can put three or four-letter words together,” says Ajeet Kler.
Dad Jetender Hayer, whose three daughters attend the class, says it was heartwarming to be able to watch a Punjabi movie with his girls and know they can now understand and appreciate some of the content.
“It just makes you feel so proud,” he says.
For the kids themselves, the opportunity to converse more fluently in Punjabi is a thrilling prospect. Many say they’ve often felt excluded at family gatherings where Punjabi is widely spoken.
Aanikh Kler says he’s looking forward to the days when he is also a fluent speaker. Right now, he’s enjoying practising his new language skills with his grandfather.
“He speaks to me [in Punjabi] and I try and speak back to him and have a mini-conversation,” he says.
At first, “you’re kind of worried about getting it wrong,” Aanikh says. But, he adds, the class “has really expanded on my knowledge. It’s pretty cool.”
Hansen, Darah. 2009. "Metro Vancouver residents use linguistic lessons to connect with past". Vancouver Sun. September 10, 2009. Available online: