Imagine moving to a new country. The stress of finding a new home, a new job, a new school for your kids, and new friends. Now imagine not being able to speak your new country’s language.
For many immigrants, this is a reality. My family had a similar experience. After the Second World War, my grandparents emigrated from Poland with their three children. They didn’t speak any English. Their children learned English in school. My grandfather was a lumberjack and learned enough English from the other men that he could do his job, but my grandmother never learned English and was reliant on my mother, uncle and aunt for everything from grocery shopping to conversing with neighbours.
In those days, there were no ESL classes or speaking groups. Children learned in schools and taught their parents. That in itself posed challenges, as my uncle regaled me with stories of his classmates purposely teaching him obscenities when he would ask for the word for something, and my mother trying to tell the doctor that she fell and hurt her “soldier” (her shoulder). If you didn’t have anyone to translate for you, then you were at the mercy of neighbours and church groups. Comfort and belonging could be found within your own ethnic community, but that is a double-edged sword. On the one side, there is a group of people who share the same culture, language, norms and traditions. It’s safe and comfortable. On the other hand, it can be isolating, keeping you from interacting with the larger population.
Now newcomers are eligible for taxpayer-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes held at schools and colleges. LINC classes are available to permanent residents, although ESL classes are also available for those aren’t permanent residents. Funding may be available to help cover living expenses while immigrants are improving their English skills. This is a prerequisite to applying for Canadian citizenship.
No matter what, learning a new language isn’t easy. Vivi and Anne-Marie had different challenges with language barriers upon first arriving in Canada. Anne-Marie had a basic understanding of English and her reading comprehension was higher than her spoken English. On the other hand, Vivi understood no English at all.
Anne-Marie said English was so hard to learn because many different words sound so similar to each other. It’s worth noting the majority of immigrants can speak three or more languages. Vivi could speak six! Anne-Marie stated phone calls were difficult for her if the caller was English-speaking because everyone spoke too quickly. Vivi explained grocery shopping was tough, especially when he was looking for a specific item and did not have the English word for it.
Vivi said it took him about 45 days of ESL classes to learn a basic understanding of English. Both agreed ESL or LINC classes were helpful, but opportunities to learn and practice can be found everywhere, from watching English television programs and listening to English radio to visiting the library and simply speaking to people.
Starting over is always frightening and difficult, but resources are available to ease some of the difficulties.
Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN)