Bilingual generation

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

Moguls champ Jennifer Heil is doing it, as are speedskater Clara Hughes and skier Chandra Crawford. It requires bravery and a big smile -- they're giving interviews in both English and French.

Going out on a limb to speak publicly in one's second language has become part of the best athletes' skill set. While the rest of Canada bickers over French immersion or English language rights, these athletes just plough ahead, learn, and put themselves out there. As they see it, it's part of being Canadian.

Pierre Trudeau, the father of bilingualism, would be pleased. Not about this country's failure to fully embrace the concept, but that some of the highest profile Olympic ambassadors so wholeheartedly have.

"Anecdotally, I'd say absolutely there's a high degree of bilingualism (among athletes) because they're travellers," said Sylvie Bigras, the Canadian Olympic Committee's press chief. "People who cross borders multiple times get this real sense of what communicating in another language is all about. I've rarely had francophone athletes not be able to do an English interview."

What's changing now is that more anglophone athletes -- about 50% of them, Bigras estimates -- are saying oui to doing interviews in French.

Last month Bigras organized a media conference call to mark the one-year countdown before the start of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. A cross-section of athletes participated, but bilingualism wasn't a criterion. So she was amazed when three of the four anglo athletes on the call -- alpine skiing's Britt Janyk, hockey's Gina Kingsbury and Nordic skiing's Devon Kershaw -- all spoke perfect French.

"I was kind of falling off my chair," Bigras said. "They all actually elected to say an opening statement in English and French."

Call it the French immersion generation. Athletes now in their 20s, including many from Western Canada, are making national teams after completing their education in French. Still others are becoming bilingual later in life, like Jenn Heil, the 2006 Olympic gold medallist in moguls.

Heil took her first French class at McGill University in 2004. Now age 25, she's fluent enough to be interviewed. Last week, she appeared on the popular Radio-Canada TV talk show, Tout le monde en parle, a distinctive format in which groups of celebrities discuss current events while sampling wines.

"I only started to learn French after making the Canadian national team and moving to Montreal (in 2001)," said Heil, who's from Spruce Grove, Alta. "I wanted to speak with my teammates and understand them when they're speaking French."

If elite sport is all about seeking perfection, learning another language is too. But is there something about being an athlete helps them take the risk of making mistakes in their non-native tongue?

Well, yes. Athletes face their fears for a living. Every day they're told how to improve. They're more likely to accept that becoming bilingual is part of being Canadian, in Dominick Gauthier's opinion.

Gauthier is Heil's coach, and her boyfriend. He also coaches World Cup and world champion Alexandre Bilodeau, meaning Gauthier and his squad work every day in both languages. He feels strongly that all athletes should become bilingual.

"We're dealing with Europeans who speak four or five languages, and here we are having a hard time learning a second one," Gauthier said. "This should be more of a priority across Canada. This is the greatest gift we can give to our youth."

Of course, it's not like the city of Vancouver is a model of bilingualism. But its efforts for the Games will be noticed. This week VANOC announced its advisory committee on official languages and affirmed its commitment to ensuring the atmosphere and services for athletes, spectators and visitors are "warm, welcoming and bilingual."

Both languages will be used on venue signs, in medal ceremonies and by volunteers taking tickets, driving vehicles, providing directions and selling merchandise.

But beyond that, the influx of French-speaking media --and the increasing number of Canadian athletes eager to accommodate them -- may be one of the unexpected nation-building gifts of these Games.


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