Learning the Languages of the Land

Muslim Canadians need to learn Canada’s other official language: French

Publishing children’s literature on Indigenous Peoples in French is increasing in Canada – but remains at a minimum when on Islam. French Muslim children’s writers are needed in order to combat negative stereotypes of Muslims, and that can only happen as more Canadian Muslims learn French. 

By Zaineb Survery

September/October 2022

The first word God revealed to Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was “Read,” not “Listen” or “Repeat.” The physiological impact of reading on the human mind cannot be underestimated. Letters themselves aren’t pivotal, for they’re no more than mere symbols inferred by the prefrontal cortex in the brain comprehending abstract concepts like reading, behavior and metacognition — thinking about thinking.

Many are aware of, “O humanity, indeed We have created you from a male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another” (49:13). This command can be deciphered as respecting and learning one another’s languages, for we’re all related. However, as Muslims in North America or Turtle Island, how much do we truly communicate, let alone read, outside our conventional languages? 

We are over-zealous — and rightly so — in learning, memorizing, deciphering and/or interpreting Quranic Arabic. Some also embrace their mother tongue, as the Companions did even after accepting Islam but still speaking in Hebrew, Aramaic or Farsi. Muslims are true locals of the land if they embrace each other’s languages. 

Knowing these languages shows respect for those who settled earlier. After English, North Americans speak Spanish and, to a far lesser extent, French and numerous Indigenous languages. Communicating in them is a form of da‘wah

Living in Canada, I will relay the need for understanding French, one of the country’s official languages.

A 2006 study by Focus Canada finds most “Canadians believe Muslims wish to remain separate as a society” — even though most Muslim Canadians wish to be integrated. Not helping are results from a 2017 Angus Reid Institute poll, which showed that almost 50% of Canadians has an unfavorable view of Muslims. This is a matter of some concern, given that Canada’s 1 million Muslims make up over 3% of its population. Unfortunately, such an attitude is indicative, given that during the last five years Islamophobia has gone nationwide due to the French-inspired laïcité law influence and Bill 21 in Quebec. 

One need not know French for the sake of knowing it nor to earn a competitive salary. Instead, Muslims need to significantly increase their representation in public services such as government, legislation and politics given Canadians’ immense misconception of Islam. Language can even give one some leverage in educating others. In 2021, almost 50% of Canadian public service employees’ first official language was French. Competition is already tough for those who are visibly Muslim due to prejudice or misconception. Language need not be yet another barrier. 

Civil Justice 

Monia Mazigh, a force to be reckoned with in this regard, is in the thick of correcting misconceptions of Islam within the Canadian government and civil justice realms. Having written almost half-a-dozen books in French, she also fought — and won — reparations from Ottawa for the wrongful conviction and treatment of her husband Maher Arar. Yet, she humbly attributes her strength to the Grace of the Creator and the “power of language.” 

This Tunisian-born Muslima, fluent in French, Arabic and English, wishes that she had learned more. She believes that learning a language other than your mother tongue and the majority-spoken language of where you live, opens one’s mind more; shapes one’s imagination, horizon and knowledge; and enables one to acquire more social intelligence at a professional, school and cultural level. In fact, she admits at one point that listening to music and learning from song lyrics helped her understand how people think. However, she now cautions on the lyrical content more than ever. 

Mazigh opposes the typical view that learning another language is a luxury. Rather, she believes it’s a must and a necessity because Canada’s Muslims need a presence, as they understand the issue, add richness and, ultimately, have to protect themselves. She quotes a popular Arabic proverb from her childhood: “Whoever learns the language of the people or nation is safe from whatever bad or harm is being tried against them.”

Of course, Mazigh is aware of the difficulty of learning a new language. However, it really is a matter of priority. Methods vary — surrounding oneself with books, going to events and movies or visiting the public library or a French bookstore and requesting specific material. This pursuit is a matter of how we use the existing resources. Curiosity is a must, particularly if we have the privilege of having the time or money to do so.

She compares learning a new language to becoming a doctor through hard work. Acquiring the skill is not easy, but the benefit is well worth the effort and investment. Mazigh equates the sociological changes brought about by the masses of Vietnamese refugees who moved to Quebec from the 1970s to 1980s — approximately 20,000 settled there with no fluency in French whatsoever. Now, they or their children are contributing members in all aspects of its society: from medicine, business and politics to the arts. 

One such artist is writer Kim Thúy; who humorously writes about the Boat People’s experiences with culture shock. She attends the annual French bookfair Salon du Livre de Toronto, which introduced Mazigh to Indigenous French-speaking writers. She knows Michele Jean, the Inuit author of “Kukum,” in which he tells about his grandmother, the wonders of an integral landscape livelihood and the Indigenous peoples’ displacement by Ottawa. Mazigh also recommends writings by the Indigenous French poetesses Joséphine Bacon and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine. 

Some French-Canadian literature is even recognized in the mother country — France — such as Sonia-Sophie Fontaine and Acadian French writer Antonine Maillet. Of course, Mazigh’s all-time favorite Canadian children writer is Robert Munsch, all of whose work has been translated into French. 

Finally, she cautions people to be open minded rather than concerned with the French-speakers’ various accents. Whether one learns French from a Métis, Inuit, Quebecois, Acadian — these are all opportunities to comprehend and be in awe of the diversity of language in and of itself. This makes her all the more curious and motivated to learn. One such inspiration is my friend Sara Mohammed. 

Public Service 

Sara Mohammed has pursued her interest in French even though her Trinidad and Tobago immigrant parents don’t speak it. Enrolled in an Ontario French immersion program since kindergarten, she pursued French throughout high school and graduated with honors in French linguistics from the University of Toronto. She continued studying it in teachers’ college and worked as a fulltime French public-school teacher for 12 years in Ontario as a visible Muslima. 

Given her vast experience and understanding, Mohammed suggests that parents learn French with their children, whether they are enrolled in French immersion or not. The ease of speaking French is due to its phonetic similarity to English, along with direct translations, as in food labels. She equates learning French to how some parents learn Arabic or Islam with the child’s own lesson. 

The daily use of visual dictionaries is recommended, along with signing out home-reading French program books, which start at Level A. Mohammed recommends Scholastic publishing’s “Escalire: Niveau F” for helping children learn how to read in French. In addition, she is fond of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic “Le Petit Prince.” She states, “Ultimately, learning together brings closeness between parent and child. The catch is consistency and longevity of implementing the program either at home, school or both.” 

One needs to dig to find French literature to one’s liking. Unfortunately, doing surface level searches on the internet for “Islamic French children literature” brings up negative stereotypes and anti-Muslim prejudice. Contemporary Muslim writers in English are thankfully growing, but we cannot limit ourselves to one language. The onus is on us to become integral contributors in all aspects of society in all languages, be it in the public or private eye. 

As Monia Mazigh says, “There is a change, a tide, and we need to be aware of it.” Being aware of and recognizing the need to diversify our communication capacity and mindset is a start — be it in French, Spanish or other languages. All change begins with reading. 

Zaineb Survery, a Canada-based community writer and educator, is founder of Indigenous and Muslim Education (IME) and a freelance writer on Indigenous history and social inequality. 

Tell us what you thought by joining our Facebook community. You can also send comments and story pitches to horizons@isna.net. Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.