ESL: Importance of Speaking English

By Adrienne Robertson

While most newcomers could probably list about a hundred things that scare or worry them about leaving home and moving to a new, unfamiliar place, all of these issues – finding a job, choosing a doctor, making friends – are influenced by our ability to communicate within our communities.

True, many people settle in areas near family or other immigrants from the same part of the world so the language is easier, but there comes a time when every newcomer needs to step out of his or her safety zone. Learning and speaking English is an important step in the settlement process because it helps newcomers obtain better jobs, get involved in their communities, participate in events, vote with confidence and express themselves.

According to Statistics Canada, the 2006 Census showed that 98 percent of the population can speak one or both official languages. In addition, English or French is spoken at least regularly at home by 94 percent of Canadians. English or French is spoken most often at home by 89 percent of the population, sometimes in combination with a non-official language.

On the other hand, only 80 percent of the population report English and French as their mother tongue (58 percent and 22 percent respectively). The remaining 20 percent have a mother tongue other than English or French (these include Aboriginal languages).

The lack of English can make it difficult to become an active, happy member of Canadian society. While there are many close-knit groups in cities like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver and plenty of newcomers who thrive within their own communities, these people may not have all the same opportunities as other Canadians.

Ibrahim Absiye, Executive Director of CultureLink, a Toronto-based settlement agency for new Canadians, says communication "opens the door for employment, integration and education." In Toronto, speaking English can be the first step to clear, effective communication. Absiye identifies "5 C’s" for new immigrants; they are five major challenges, all starting with the letter C:

  1. Colour: barriers as related to race and appearance.
  2. Cultural Confusion: newcomers may expect one thing of Canada and experience something different.
  3. Climate: it is often shocking to newcomers that up to seven months out of the year are spent indoors.
  4. Computers: many new immigrants are not as experienced with technology as we expect them to be and this can prevent them from accessing some information.
  5. Communication: not being able to converse with the people around you can lead to frustration, isolation and missed opportunities.

Absiye calls communication a key step to settlement and considers language barriers one of the biggest problems newcomers will face when they move to Canada.

According to a 2005 study by Statistics Canada, one in four newcomers found learning English or French to be one of the biggest challenges in their settlement process. They considered it the second biggest difficulty only after finding an adequate job, which can also be affected by a newcomer’s ability to speak English.

Analyses of data from the 2006 Census on immigration and citizenship, conducted by Stats Canada, showed that 70 percent of the foreign-born population does not speak English or French as a first language. This group is formed mainly by immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2006 – close to 1,110,000 newcomers.

Ticket to Employment

The employment rate of immigrants increases with their ability to speak English. Newcomers with stronger English are also more likely to find jobs related to their preferred fields.

This is why it can be so beneficial to attend an ESL class, join a discussion circle or seek out a settlement agency for help with the English language, especially when these services are both excellent and free. The skills newcomers can learn in these classes will also make day-to-day life easier, like communicating with a doctor.

Although the Canadian government guarantees this freedom (equal access to health care) among others, like the right to a fair trial, it is not always possible to find a translator, particularly at the last minute. This is why newcomers can benefit from arming themselves with English language skills.

"There are healthcare providers who try to accommodate their patients as much as possible, but these cases are more the exception than the rule," says Dr. Marco A. Fiola, an Associate Professor with the School of Graduate Studies at Ryerson University.

In cases like that, it is obvious how valuable independence can be. It is a blessing not having to seek a translator every time you need to buy new clothes or do some banking.

Many newcomers make an effort shortly after their arrival in Canada to learn English. According to Canada’s 2006 Census, six months after arriving in Canada, 58 percent of immigrants reported being able to speak English well or very well. After living here for four years, 69 percent said they could speak English well or very well. This may be due in part because 45 percent of newcomers take training in English.

This is not to say that these newcomers are as fluent in English as those who have spoken it all their lives – for some immigrants, English comes easily in some situations but not in others.

"For example, they will be completely fluent in English for their work purposes, but once they are home, they revert to their home language, or once they are at the doctor’s office, they need the services of an interpreter…they don’t know the words for things or concepts that go beyond a certain area of their lives," says Dr. Fiola.

While more research is necessary in this area, it is apparent that newcomers who seek help with their English skills will have a better quality of life in Canada, particularly if they wish to be free of language barriers in day-to-day situations.

Dr. Fiola believes many newcomers who can maintain their native tongue and culture while learning English and experiencing life in Toronto can be extremely happy.

Learning English does not mean giving up culture, background or a native tongue, it’s simply adding a new and valuable skill that will make the transition much smoother for most newcomers.

CNM