Today (July 17), Statistics Canada announced that the country’s annual inflation rate was negative for the first time since November 1994. It’s may be a sign that the recession is not abating and that competition for jobs remains as fierce as ever.
The economic downturn has led some B.C. residents who speak English as a second language—a demographic which faces unique challenges when looking for employment—to sign up for accent-reduction training.
Actress Mélanie Desbiens moved from Quebec to Vancouver in 2006. “It was really hard to find a job at that time because my English was pretty bad,” she told the Straight.
After three years of contract work which provided little stability, Desbiens said that she decided to correct what she felt was holding her back: a weak command of the English language.
“I wanted to work on my enunciation to help me with my theatre and to help me with finding a job,” she explained.
A quick Google search led Desbiens to Vancouver’s L2 Accent Reduction Centre. Eight one-hour sessions later, Desbiens was hired in March 2009 for a full-time position as a program director for Place des Arts in Coquitlam.
Was it improvements to her English that got Desbiens the job? “I think so,” she said. “It is hard to say because I didn’t take the interview before. But I really think it has helped me. I’ve noticed some change.”
Jennifer Madigan is a language specialist and director of learning at L2. Since she and her husband Jeff founded L2 one year ago.
“The question is, what is a wrong accent?” Madigan said in a telephone interview. “And the answer to that is there is no wrong accent. But if you have to second-guess what somebody is saying, or you have to make up what that person says in your mind, then that person needs help.”
Madigan noted that most of her clients are already employed and use L2’s services to meet goals such as career advancement. But she described the potential benefits of L2’s services as especially valuable for people who speak poor English and are still looking for a job in B.C.
“A lot of interviews nowadays are just on the phone,” she said. “And if you can’t get through that than you are not going to be able to meet the person face to face.”
L2 can improve an individual’s pronunciation, Madigan continued, which, in addition to allowing people to understand them better, instills confidence in a person.
Kelvin Foo is the kind of immigrant that Madigan was talking about, though perhaps not the kind of person who you might think would need an accent-reduction service.
In a telephone interview with the Straight, he explained that he moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver when he was 16 years old, completed high school in B.C., and then went on to earn an undergraduate and then a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia.
But, now 11 years later, Foo said that he still feels his Chinese accent is holding him back. An engineer in training with the B.C. Transmission Corporation, Foo said that the work he has put in with L2 has allowed him to confidently deliver a presentation to colleagues.
“Presentation skills are a key thing,” Foo said. He argued that while L2’s services may not make an ESL job applicant stand out, they can help level the playing field with individuals born-and-raised in English-speaking communities.
As valuable as an accent-reduction service may be, it is definitely no silver bullet to an ESL applicant’s woes, according to Iris Sun, program assistant at SUCCESS Employment Services.
Sun recently led a survey conducted in conjunction with the B.C. Nurses Union which aimed to explore how to help internationally educated nurses re-enter their fields of expertise—something which can prove difficult for newcomers to B.C.
Sun described the survey’s results as “quite interesting”. She said that those who participated in the on-line survey did not describe language barriers as their first or even second-greatest hurdle to re-entering the work force.
“We did assume that most of the participants would find language skills the most-challenging thing for them,” Sun said. “But so far, actually, not so many participants chose language skills as their greatest barrier.”
According to the nursing survey’s results, 25 percent of respondents described B.C.’s “costly and lengthy licensing procedures” as a challenge to reaccredidation and employment. “Insufficient information about local labour markets” was listed as a barrier by 17 percent of survey participants.
A “lack of language skills” was tied for third with a “lack of knowledge regarding licensing procedures”. Both of these challenges were described by 15 percent of respondents as a barrier to becoming a nurse in B.C.
Sun theorized that language barriers might have ranked lower than expected because of the increasingly ubiquitous use of the English language around the globe.
“Many [survey participants] came from the Philippines,” Sun said. “In the Philippines, English is almost a native language.”
She recommended that, as the recession affects ESL residents and immigrants to B.C. especially hard, newcomers should seek out government and community support services designed to help such people restart their careers.
Speaking from L2’s office, Madigan—whose parents came to Canada from Korea—emphasized that it has never been her intention to portray an accent as a bad thing.
“If someone has an accent and you can understand them without any difficulty, great, it is wonderful to have an accent,” she said. “It’s all about communication.”
You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.