My name is Trishna Nazareth, and I am an ESL instructor at Vancouver Community College. I have been teaching ESL (English as a second language) now referred to as EAL (English as an additional language) for over 15 years. I am an immigrant myself and therefore no stranger to the struggles of immigrants in Canada and their need to forge a more successful future for themselves and their families.
I am writing this article because I believe that ESL training is crucial to our society as a whole. I am appalled at the lack of vision of the B.C. government regarding ESL and its impact on Canada’s present and future.
Canada is world renowned for being one of the most tolerant, welcoming, and democratic countries in the world—a dynamic mosaic of multiculturalism where people live and work together in harmony. No other country in the world encompasses inhabitants from so many different backgrounds who exhibit strong loyalty toward Canada, while still preserving their cultural heritage. According to Statistics Canada in 2012, 31.1 percent of permanent residents in British Columbia cannot communicate in either English or French. In fact, if we look at Canada as a whole, Statistics Canada states that only 11.7 percent of permanent residents have listed English as their mother tongue. As a country, we wholeheartedly believe that the government of Canada is committed to a policy of diversity that is designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians, while striving to achieve equality in the economic, social, cultural, and political areas of our daily lives.
By virtue of the Canadian immigration requirements, most of the immigrants who move to Canada are highly qualified and usually very successful individuals in their home countries. Their reasons for moving here are usually motivated by political, social, financial, and most often familial needs. As a result, most of them are also well educated and have often studied English to very high academic standards. However, a lot of that knowledge is irrelevant once they come to Canada because they usually cannot speak the language clearly or communicate effectively by Canadian standards. Many immigrants express their frustrations at not being able to find a job because they do not have “Canadian experience”.
In my humble opinion, “Canadian experience” is a euphemism for soft skills. Since most of these immigrants have been educated in postsecondary institutions around the world, the reality is that they most likely have superior technical skills compared to the average educated Canadian. However, what they lack is the ability to understand the social and cultural landscape of the Canadian workforce, and therefore often make mistakes regarding tone and register when communicating with peers and acquaintances.
Before even stepping on Canadian soil, most immigrants spend thousands of dollars upgrading their English language skills. The issue here is not their education but the quality of instruction that they receive. It would be safe to assume that a majority of their local English language instructors belong to the same cultural background and have never even been to Canada. Obviously, this leads to a few issues such as learning pronunciation from non-native speakers in a very different pedagogical system compared to Canada. Additionally, most textbooks are either focused on either British or American culture, whereas Canada is a unique blend of these two cultures and this would probably be more evident to those who have lived here and experienced the culture.
Many of my students have masters and doctorates which were more often than not completed in English, but they are unable to either speak the language comfortably or effectively. Students are often discouraged and frustrated because in their native country they were the cream of the crop in all aspects of their lives. However, here they can barely function in Canadian society. Some students have even had to close down their businesses because they were not able to speak English properly or clearly. To reiterate, nearly all these students are professionals who were very successful financially and professionally in their home countries.
In an April 2012 press release, Naomi Yamamoto, minister of advanced education, talked about free ESL and she stated: “We want to make sure all British Columbians have the adult education opportunities they need to find jobs, raise families, participate in their communities and fulfil their dreams. This investment will help Canadian citizens and Canadian-born residents whose first language is not English improve their English language skills in order to move on to higher levels of education, skills and trades training and employment.”
In keeping with this sentiment, the government needs to understand that ESL instructors are not only teaching students English as an additional language but are also helping them understand the nuances of communicating effectively so that they can successfully navigate the Canadian workforce. ESL instructors all over Canada are the first responders to this unspoken and often unrealized need in Canadian immigrants. By helping these individuals recognize and adapt to the differences between their home countries and Canada, we are giving them the tools—as Yamamoto said—“they need to find jobs, raise families, participate in their communities and fulfil their dreams”.
A point often overlooked is that some of these students are new immigrants while many others are permanent residents or Canadian citizens who want to upgrade their skills in order to be able to move on to higher levels of employment. To clarify, currently there are immigrant settlement services such as LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) in place for new immigrants, but by canceling funding for ESL the B.C. government is denying Canadian citizens and permanent residents the right to an education and a better life.
ESL instructors help all ESL students understand and learn the essential skills they need in order for them to lead productive and successful lives and contribute to Canadian society. An investment in ESL is an investment in B.C.’s future because ESL matters!