February 16, 2022

A week of celebrating SFU's linguistic diversity

Multilingual SFU Week was a celebration of SFU's linguistic diversity on all three campuses.

“My superpower is multilingualism.”

That was the slogan printed on buttons given out during the first-ever Multilingual SFU Week from February 7 to 11, 2022. And it was an expression of the belief underlying the five-day event: a conviction that the linguistic diversity of SFU students, faculty and staff is a strength to be celebrated and used rather than simply a challenge to overcome.

The idea for a celebration of multilingualism was first discussed by members of the Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE)’s English as an Additional Language (EAL) Initiatives team.

“In the initial planning for this event, we wanted to keep it small,” said Amanda Wallace, an EAL consultant and member of the organizing team. “But it grew beyond our expectations, in part because so many units—for example, Student Services, the Student Learning Commons, Fraser International College, etc.—and departments—World Languages and Literatures—wanted to be involved.”

Ultimately, the week grew to encompass 10 in-person and online events for students, faculty and staff, along with activity tables staffed by volunteers at all three SFU campuses. The sessions included workshops, fireside chats, and even a “multilingual trivia hour.”

Sharing stories and experiences

A panel discussion on Day 1 with faculty members Isabelle Côté (education), Mike Sjoerdsma (engineering science) and Cynthia Xie (computing science) set the tone as the participants shared their personal and professional experiences with embracing linguistic diversity “in our classrooms, on our campuses, and in our communities.”

That dialogue was complemented by a second panel discussion on Day 4 featuring Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation, Dr. Sunny Man Chu Lau from Bishop’s University in Quebec, and Dr. Jérémie Séror from the University of Ottawa.

“I think the two panel discussions offered a snapshot of the ‘state of multilingualism’—one of the national level and the other of SFU’s community,” said Wallace.

She was especially struck by Séror’s statement that “every instructor is a language teacher.”

“Everyone is a language teacher because you cannot separate the language from the content of the discipline,” explained Wallace. “For me, this captures the work of the EAL Initiatives team—supporting faculty in their work to create linguistically accessible classrooms.”

Interestingly, the interconnection of language and content was also articulated by Chief Campbell during the week’s closing session at the Halpern Centre, Burnaby campus. Chief Campbell spoke about the importance of the Squamish language in the life of the Squamish Nation and noted that certain practices and bodies of knowledge have disappeared because the terms used to express them have been forgotten. He remarked that the last native Squamish speaker died a year ago at the age of 90—but also pointed out that new generations are taking up the language and expressed optimism that this will contribute to the cultural revitalization of his nation.

“Connect. Collaborate. Celebrate.”

According to EAL consultant Eilidh Singh, who served as lead organizer for the project, the themes of the week were “Connect. Collaborate. Celebrate.” She and her fellow organizers were thrilled to see those connections and collaborations occurring, often outside of the formal sessions.

“My highlight was something that happened on Monday in Surrey,” said Fiona Shaw, associate director, EAL initiatives, in CEE. She was handing out stickers, and as she handed a sticker to one student, he revealed that he spoke Russian. Another student overheard the exchange and asked whether he really spoke the language.

“ ‘Da,’ said the student, and the two of them wandered off down the stairs together speaking Russian. Multilingualism is indeed a superpower for bringing people together!”

The future is multilingual

One recurring motif noted by Shaw was the idea of moving beyond the constraints of one or two languages to a recognition that language use is fluid and “we should embrace and harness that linguistic fluidity for deeper learning in our classrooms.”

“It’s a universal and ongoing conversation in higher education that is still not talked about enough,” said Eilidh Singh, “particularly the thorny issues around multilingualism in a mostly monolingual institution, but I think the conversation is starting to be more widely discussed.”

All three organizers said Multilingual SFU Week left them feeling excited about the place of linguistic diversity at SFU.

“I was really struck by how our message of linguistic inclusivity resonated widely with students, faculty and staff across all three campuses,” said Fiona Shaw. “I’m very optimistic about the future of multilingualism at SFU and already looking forward to next year!”

Amanda Wallace was inspired by the involvement of so many SFU community members.

“I am optimistic … because of the response of students, staff and faculty members from across different units and departments. In my interactions with many students, I could feel their sense of pride about their linguistic heritage and their ability to speak another—sometimes multiple—languages. It seemed that this was the first time they were being recognized and celebrated.”

Eilidh Singh hopes SFU community members will find their own ways of celebrating and taking advantage of the university’s linguistic diversity.

“It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of implementation and research in this area. We know that multilingualism is a superpower, and I hope that we encourage opportunities to recognize and acknowledge that among our amazingly diverse and interesting SFU community.”