Immigration growth strains existing language support systems
Several new immigrants and refugees move to Canada from countries where they don’t speak English or French seeking language training.
Last year, Canada opened its doors to more than 300,000 newcomers. The federal government projects there will be as many – or more – in 2017.
Upon arrival, these newcomers begin their journey from settlement to integration and citizenship, for those who wish to remain in Canada.
A key part of the integration process is access to language training.
“The language training policies in Canada stress that there is a need for language — people have a responsibility to learn one of the official languages — and that as a nation we have a responsibility to provide it,” said David Wood, director of the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University.
When newcomers arrive and wish to either work or study in the country, they’re asked to write an English (or French) exam to determine at what level their language training will begin.
Polina Glazynina, an immigrant from Moscow, wrote her English exam just ten days after arriving in Ottawa last year.
“I got very low marks,” she said. “I was very disappointed because I have studied [English] before and I can read but I couldn’t understand anything,” she said.
Since then, Glazynina has been studying English in a government-funded program called Language Integration for Newcomers to Canada (LINC).
LINC and its French counterpart, Cours de langue pour les immigrants au Canada (CLIC), is an accredited and structured curriculum that helps newcomers integrate into Canadian society.
These language programs emerged after a new immigration act was put in place in 1992, which embraced the idea of multiculturalism.
Room for improvement
The standardized system used today was developed in 2000. It works better than the previous method but “there are stresses and strains on the [current] system,” said Wood.
One such difficulty is child care.
“There are some [LINC] locations with child care but it’s limited because of funding,” said June Myles, an ESL instructor who has been working in Ottawa’s LINC environment for four years.
Another obstacle is the number of locations.
Today, there are 32 LINC locations in the Ottawa area, a number that has been dropping over the past few years. The Language Training Center of Ottawa (LTCO) on Kent St., for instance, closed its doors on March 28.
According to Myles, proximity is another challenge.
“At one time we had these English classes very close to the communities whereas now they have to travel further to get to us,” she said.
Because students are traveling further to get to class, the government has added transportation subsidies for newcomers involved in language training programs across Canada.
“Since April 2016, nearly 7,000 new language training seats have been added … to meet the needs of Syrian refugees. More child minding spaces and transportation subsidies have also been added to facilitate access to language classes for these clients,” said Lindsay Wemp, a spokeswoman from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
How the program works
Immigrants and refugees are enrolled in their courses soon after they arrive and they receive daily classes of three to five hours a day up to a maximum of 600 hours of free instruction.
LINC and CLIC programs are based upon the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) or Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadiens (NCLC), a 12-level rating system that assesses students at each appropriate level depending on what they can or cannot do with the language.
Students usually complete the program after they have obtained their level 5 before going on to more specific language training usually in their field.
According to the CLB guidebook, students at a level 5 “can join in conversations on familiar topics, understand a range of common vocabulary and a few idioms, write a paragraph with a main idea and supporting details [and] read information that is received regularly, such as a gas bill, or some items in a newspaper.”
The time it takes a student to advance from one benchmark to the next varies from learner to learner.
According to LINC instructors, it takes students anywhere from 250 to 500 hours of class time to advance to the next benchmark and that’s assuming they have not experienced trauma.
When immigrants — or refugees in particular — move to Canada, many personal factors can prevent them from reaching the next level. For example, many refugees struggle from PTSD.
But not everyone has to be proficient in one of the two official languages before they are admitted to Canada.
“While proficiency in English or French is a requirement for Canadian citizenship,” said Sonia Lesage, a spokesperson from IRCC, “it is not accurate that all immigrants [and refugees] would need to speak a certain level of English of French to be admitted to or remain in Canada.”
However, because many newcomers arrive from countries where the official languages are neither English nor French, language-training programs become a necessary step in their settlement process.
“The program gets students integrated into Canadian society because it allows them to learn the language they need to carry out their everyday lives,” said Myles.
“And it helps with the culture shock as well because we’re there talking to them about Canadian culture.”
According to Wemp, language training is the “single largest component of settlement funding. She said that in 2015-16, the IRCC spent more than $250 million on language training.
This year, the Government of Canada has said it will invest more than $900 million to support the settlement and resettlement needs of newcomers.
Instructors and students within the LINC community hope the government looks more internally at how the system is currently operating before increasing Canada’s immigration levels.
“Settlement and integration is a multi-year process,” said Wood.
He added that in order to increase the number of immigrants and refugees, it’s important to understand the infrastructure that already exists to ensure it is sufficient for both its current and future learners.
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