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Speaking American

In his latest Geist column, author Stephen Henighan — who also teaches at the University of Guelph — discusses his frustration with having to use an American textbook for his basic-Spanish-language course.

“I wasn’t surprised by the map of North America that ended at the forty-ninth parallel, the two Mexicans conversing in Mexico City who spoke of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, or the line drawings showing eager students saluting the stars and stripes,” he writes. “But other examples of American insularity dispatched class discussion into time-consuming detours. Dialogues in which characters debated paying in-state versus out-of-state fees necessitated mini-lectures on how U.S. universities worked…. [A] student was asked to say in Spanish the date of George Washington’s birthday. Canadian students, I discovered, do not know George Washington’s birthday. I began to wonder whether I was imparting Hispanic culture, or that of the United States.”

Henighan got a chance to rectify the situation when Thomson Nelson asked him and McMaster professor Antonio Velasquez to “Canadianize” a U.S. text. “‘This will be a light Canadianization,’ a company memo stated. The illusion collapsed as soon as Tony and I started tearing apart the American textbook to which Thomson Nelson had acquired Canadian rights. Our efforts disabused us of the popular misconception that swapping names around is enough to transform one culture into another…. The dialogues in the U.S. textbook followed a student from Wisconsin in her travels through the Hispanic world. American students, whether Boston liberals or Dallas conservatives, could identify with a Midwesterner. Canada has no neutral Midwest. Whichever region I chose as my protagonist’s home, other Canadians would feel alienated.” That and other lessons from Henighan’s experience make for a thought-provoking column.

Related links:
Click here for Stephen Henighan’s Geist column