Trishna Nazareth: ESL funding cuts will harm B.C. immigrants’ prospects of success

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!

Comments (13) Add New Comment
Great article! The government needs to pay more attention to the need for ESL
Rating: +3
If you can't find enough English speaking opportunities to conduct your business, you are too stupid to deserve a business.

Here's a thought: speak English when you can. This may cause you to sometimes have to forgo hanging out with your Chinese (say) friends speaking Chinese exclusively while you shop at the Aberdeen Centre, but darn it, it's worth it.
Rating: -1
Trishna is referring of course to FREE ESL courses. I had to show proficiency in either English or French to be allowed to immigrate to Canada. I don't understand why this policy wasn't enforced across the board.
Rating: +12
@blah, RUK
First off, immigrants come from all over the world, spanning China to South Africa to Ireland. Not all chose (or have the ability) to live in ethnic enclaves/ghettos, and they want as much of a start at a new life away from what they came from as born and raised Canadians wanting their own starts in life. Also, showing proficiency in either English or French is no easy task in particular for refuguees who have no schooling in their native languages in their home countries yet are fleeing at the hands of war and oppression. Until you an adult how to hold a pencil in their hands and learn how to read and write for the very first time in their lives, in a second (and alien) language no doubt, it will be difficult for you to comprehend ever why enforcing certain policies does more harm than good. God forbid some part of Canada ever went into a civil war or military coup or foreign occupation, you'de pray that some country welcomed you and kept you safe after years going without, whether they spoke English or Mandarin or Arabic or Ga. Also, if anyone is going to pull the Chinese card, I wish people would stop lumping Chinese speakers as one group of people. China is also home to heavily opressed ethnic minorties like the Uyghur and Tibetans, as well don't mind opressing other ethnic Chinese for freely speaking their own minortiy dialects like Cantonese or Shanghainese.
Rating: -11
The government's policy is so short sighted. If we want to have a population of people who can engage productively, we need to invest in training people and offer them a place to get their training. At this point, there are very few places for this. My students are wondering how they will be able to get into the training programs they need with the level of English they have.
Rating: +8
Just to clarify, the students are willing to pay for these classes but the Government has said they are not willing to fund the classes nor are students allowed to pay for it. These students are taxpayers as well and they should be given the same opportunity as every other student. ESL should be treated like a maths, chemistry, physics and every other course! The course is publicly available and the student pays tuition... FOr your information it was this way till 2012 when the BC Government decided that it had to be free!
Rating: +14
Paul Stanford
It is not the Governments responsibility to pay for ESL. The people who come to Canada should (Mandatory) know one of two official languages. Canada being compassionate and tolerant does not mean that it has to take the burden of educating everyone. The requirements for immigration into Canada should be changed to include a mandatory test for one of the official languages. Having a rally to fight for "your rights" when it is not your right but a privilege given to you by the Government. The privilege is not in holding the rally but that of receiving Free or subsidized ESL.

Let it be known that if you want to come to Canada, know the language, the history, the people before you come here and try to change it to make it a country similar to where you came from.

I am not being harsh. Just realistic.

Let Private industry pick up the slack and provide for a fee ESL Courses.

Rating: -7
The Liberal government obviously pandered to the immigrant vote by insisting ESL classes be free, now they are reneging viciously. Why not continue to offer quality ESL at VCC with students paying as they do for other courses or even the true cost? As Trishna writes many were wealthy successful people in their country, let us only subsidize based on a means test. Private schools are often a rip off with substandard teaching because of the profit motive. This is an incredibly stupid Liberal move for which they have given no valid reason.
Rating: +8
blair worrall
depressing the number of comments here that reflect not only a lack of human compassion, but also a lack of understanding as to who the majority of these people are and what it is they want.
Have some immigrants and residents taken advantage of subsidized ESL. Yes. Are they the majority? Absolutely not. The majority are people who have sacrificed much to get here. The majority make sacrifices every day to put food on the table, often working minimum wage jobs or working graveyard so they can go to places like VCC to get their English to a level where they can build a better life. They want to fit in, they want to contribute.
This government's decision to eliminate, not reduce, ELIMINATE funding to support post secondary ESL is shameful. Minister Virk claim that he "understands" ESL needs because he himself was an ESL student would be laughable if it wasn't so cruel. So the language training he received put him in a position of deny that same opportunity to others.
And to the "realistic" Paul Stanford, I realize you represent the opinion of a significant number of people. You want to be objective, and you want to be fair. But when you throw around terms like "right" and "privilage", perhaps you could add "social responsibility" to the list. There is no greater "privilage" than being born in a country as rich and as safe as Canada. We enjoy rights and privilages that the vast majority of people in the world can scarcely dream of. But to those lucky enough to qualify for the chance to build a life here, you say "you have no right to need our help" and "our governemnt has no responsibility to offer you any"...sounds like the kind of crap you might hear at a Tea Party rally
Rating: +6
Carrie Leggatt
Thanks Trishna for speaking about the cultural bridging that is so much apart of the needs of the immigrants. Knowing one of the official languages is not enough to bridge into the workplace. Canada is a casual egalitarian oriented country and many immigrants come from formal, hierarchical cultures. There are no 'books' that teach students what this means in terms of how you communicate, or write an email, or conduct yourself during a job interview. VCC and other public institutions have developed a unique expertise in this area.

And please remember that most of these immigrant families have children and when their parents are not supported in their career aspirations, their children and family members suffer as well. So families first - which families are first Christie Clark and Amrik Virk? Which ones?
Rating: +6
I'm an EAL teacher and have worked in both private and public educational institutions. There is a HUGE difference between the students and their needs. Private schools are mostly upper-middle-class / affluent international university students who want to learn English as a resume buffer so they can go back and get better jobs in their home countries where competition for good jobs is fierce (in most cases, they won't even use English once they get job). Some private schools students are just here on a cultural vacation or have English as their 'hobby'.

The immigrants who study at places like VCC are VERY DIFFERENT. I taught night classes for immigrants, and students come exhausted from working manual labour positions all day. I don't even know when they see their families as many of them also take extra work on weekends and go to additional free English classes at libraries and community centres. One student was a lawyer in Vietnam and he is now painting condos in Vancouver.

To RUK, you make it sound so easy to just find "English speaking opportunities" when it's really not. How many immigrants with poor English skills have you invited to hang out with you and your English-speaking buddies? Would you REALLY welcome someone who spoke limited English into your group of friends? Is saying hello to someone at a bus stop going to improve the skills you need for getting a job? The answer here is usually, no. English-speaking Canadians are polite and will entertain immigrants in some small talk about the weather, but the conversation usually ends there. It's hard enough for an English-speaking Canadian to make friends with other English-speaking Canadians in this town. Most of us make friends through work, and guess what? All the immigrants with poor English are each other's coworkers. So...what are they going to learn in that environment? Not much.

Live in another country where few people speak your language for a year, and then I might give your opinion some credit. Otherwise, people like you really have no basis on which to judge.

Rating: +8
Morna McLeod
Can we clarify here that it was federal, not provincial, money that was removed from these programs, although the province had brokered the funding. What this means is that both levels of government are responsible for abandoning this group of people that the Canadian economy really needs. The feds need to put some of this money back in place - even with some reasonable tuition charged - and the province needs to anti up some that it never had in the past. I just looked it up - the Canadian birth rate is 1.63, meaning we aren't replacing ourselves. Without immigrants we will have fewer people to do the jobs needed and to pay taxes in the future. Providing language training is one way to ensure immigrants are both welcomed and integrated in Canada.
Rating: +7
Morna - No the funds the Federal Government was giving was specified to the Provincial Government to use for settlement English (LINC). When the Feds saw that it was also being used for Academic ESL they decided to pull back the money from the Province and deal directly with organizations providing LINC only for the part they are responsible for. Adult ESL is like any other ordinary course taken at a College or University and that comes under the Realm of Adult Education which is the Provincial Government's jurisdiction.
Rating: +3
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