Immigrants need help learning Canada’s ‘secret rules’, researchers say


OTTAWA — Immigrants need help learning not just Canada’s two official languages, but also the “secret rules” of Canadian life in order to fit into their new home, according to the authors of a report released Thursday.

The ability to speak and read English or French is viewed as key to the economic success of newcomers, and the federal government is implementing mandatory language testing for immigrants in their country of origin and increasing the level of proficiency required. But in their report for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Tracey Derwing and Erin Waugh looked at the role of language and cultural practices in how immigrants develop friendships, join social organizations and build networks within the mainstream.

The study, Language Skills and the Social Integration of Canada’s Adult Immigrants, reviewed the federal Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) program, which is available to all permanent immigration classes until they become Canadian citizens. It also reviewed existing literature, including a Citizenship and Immigration study of language proficiency levels and a longitudinal study Derwin co-authored that has followed Mandarin and Slavic-language speakers since their arrival in Canada, assessing their accents and fluency as part of overall comprehensibility.

Derwing says some groups have an easier time mastering Canada’s official languages than others, which factors into their success or failure at social integration.

“Mandarin speakers are going to have more difficulty with English or French than Slavic speakers, simply because the Slavic languages are related to the same larger language family. They share some things in common, whereas Mandarin is totally unrelated,” says Derwing. “Just linguistically alone, it’s harder for somebody from a Chinese language background, or Vietnamese or Cambodian, just because the languages are so far apart.”

Still, Derwing, a professor of TESL (teaching English as a second language) at the University of Alberta, and Waugh, an English-in-the-workplace instructor at NorQuest College in Edmonton, say they found that even those who made strides in language acquisition had opportunities stifled by the newcomer’s inability to understand the “pragmatics” or cultural customs of the Canadian-born — something not addressed in most language programs.

“If you’re going to ask your boss for a raise, you have to be able to self-promote in a way that isn’t going to offend,” says Derwing, co-director of the Metropolis Centre for Research on Immigration, Integration and Diversity. “Or if you realize someone has said something that isn’t true and if it’s a high-stakes situation where it’s important that the facts come out, you have to find a way to say it without the other person losing face. Those things are culturally determined — there is a Canadian way of doing things.”

Derwing says her longitudinal study of Mandarin and Slavic-language speakers in Alberta demonstrates that too often, newcomers not only lack these skills, they lack connections to Canadian-born friends and neighbours who could help them learn.

“Among Mandarin speakers in particular, we had people coming in saying they didn’t know their Canadian neighbours, they didn’t have conversations in English for the most part,” says Derwing.

“They’d go to work and be at a computer screen all day or have the same routinized conversations day in, day out. In another study done with foreign-born engineers … very few of them reported having Canadian-born friends or contact with Canadian-born.”

Consequently, Derwing and Waugh believe the federal government ought to expand its language-training curriculum to include more such “pragmatics” to help people navigate the unspoken cultural rules.

“It’s important to address that in language classes, and for instructors to point out why this matters,” says Derwing. “It’s the ability to make small talk and initiate conversations that go beyond the weather. You need to seem like you know what’s going on.”

The authors also recommend broadening eligibility criteria for language training, and expanding the government’s Community Connection program, which funds settlement agencies to introduce newcomers to Canadian volunteers who can act as their cultural guides.

“The thing that surprised me the most was people had so much difficulty finding Canadian friends,” says Derwing, citing an example from the longitudinal study of a husband and wife trying to build a network outside their ethnic community.

“I remember interviewing that woman and she said “I said to my husband, ‘We have to find some people to talk to us.’ They tried a couple of churches. But they were in their mid-30s and everyone at church was 70 or 75.”

The bottom line, says Derwing, is that Canada ought to recognize immigrants can’t do it alone.

“They’re working five hours a day trying to learn English, but there are secret rules, and if nobody tells you what they are, you’re going to have a hard time figuring it out,” says Derwing. “Communication is a two-way street and they need a little help from the people who understand the system.”

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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