Something new and uniquely beneficial
With 25,000 Syrian refugees meant to arrive in Canada in the next months, there has been a surge of interest in supporting newcomers. In terms of language support, I believe we can develop something new and uniquely beneficial, for both newcomers and settled Canadians.
The problem with language classrooms
When I was teaching English at Immigrant Services Society of BC several years ago, to a group of women mainly from China, I asked the group to draw a diagram of their “community” – their friends, family members, and anyone they interacted with regularly – and to label each relationship by language. For the majority, I was the only person with whom they had an English relationship. Many women had been in Vancouver for two or three years.
I see no blame here. Days might be spent taking care of kids or working within the language community out of necessity, and then sitting through a 3-hour evening class in English. Unfortunately, while the English classroom provides some stability and a nice group of acquaintances seeking the same opportunities in Canada, it does not provide access to native speakers other than the teacher, or new people that have rich local knowledge and connections to share. The classroom itself constrains.
One-to-one language exchange for language AND settlement
Imagine a program that pairs individual English-speakers with immigrants and refugees who speak other languages, and supports their mutual learning. Pairs meet weekly and spend half the time in one language and half in the other. The program is free or very cheap. People can continually apply and be matched, based on language, neighbourhood, and gender preference. Smart resources and experienced facilitators support them. Ongoing research improves the program.
Does it work?
People naturally want to know, “Does this system result in language learning?” My first answer is: yes. It’s how I learned Turkish with Erdal and Yusuf, Spanish with Lorena, and French with Oriane. My second answer: it depends on how we define language learning. Is it the ability to pass a written test? The Chinese women in my class were passing tests. I think a far more productive and accurate definition involves having relationships, participating in activities, and engaging with materials in a meaningful way. If you listen to participants of language exchanges, you hear these outcomes – friendships, networking, volunteer opportunities, job opportunities, new media, new ideas, and new senses of ability.
Why would an English-speaker in Vancouver bother learning Arabic from a Syrian refugee for half the time, when the whole time could be spent in English? Because reciprocity matters. Helping another person – in this case, to learn Arabic – generates valuable psychological benefit, a feeling of capacity. Exchanging roles of expert and apprentice cultivates empathy for anxiety and frustration, and in turn improves communication skills. Valuing both languages signals an actual care for diversity.
The UBC Tandem Language Learning Program, in operation since I started it in 2011, now matches and supports about 900 people per year, with a budget for just two part-time student positions. Supporting a few thousand adults across B.C. would be similarly minimal – a mere fraction of the cost of classroom education.
I am now exploring which organizations to work with in order to house such a program, with hopes of matching the first pairs of English-speakers and newcomers by February. If you are interested in participating or knowing more, email me at mary.f.leighton(at)gmail.com.