Although it is not always requisite, it is a good idea to have at least a basic command of the official language(s) of your new country when migrating. Many adult immigrants have likely had the opportunity to pick up a few helpful phrases here and there. But as any new immigrant will agree, a few helpful phrases are not nearly enough to survive. A command of a new language, in Canada’s case, English and/or French, is vital to navigating the institutions of a new country. Migrating to a new country is a stressful and anxiety-ridden process, but as grown-ups, we’re expected to be able to deal with the stress.
What about young immigrants, though? How do we prepare a child, already in a very vulnerable position, for life in a country where the language and culture may be quite different and alienating? The Calgary Board of Education (CBE), in Alberta, offers a wide range of programs aimed at assisting young newcomers regardless of their educational level and familiarity with Canada. The CBE offers three programs specifically for students (and their families) who need help with any of Canada’s official languages and Culture. The Cultural and Linguistic Support, English Language Learners, and Interpretation Services programs fall under the broad category of Supports for Students, and they cover a range of topics and skill levels to accommodate each student that enters the Calgary school system.
Of the 125,000 students enrolled in the system, the CBE website notes that “about one-quarter…are identified as English Language Learners.” According to statistics gathered by Dr. Hetty Roessingh and Carla Johnson of the University of Calgary, a native English speaker should have a vocabulary of around 100,000 words by the age of 18. In contrast, a senior high school English as a Second Language (ESL) student is expected to have a vocabulary of about 24,000 words – this is less than a quarter of the requirement for a native speaker. This highlights the importance of offering immersive English language and Canadian culture programs to all levels of learners. According to CBE’s website, the school board assess learners when they first enter the school system and offer programs “based on their ESL coding and language assessment.”
The board suggests that students speak their original language at home…The retention of an original language, and the culture that accompanies it encourages a more global perspective in young learners.
In its information package, the board suggests that students speak their original language at home. The Keep Your Home Language Alive! document shares that maintaining one’s original language can make it easier to learn a new language. The retention of an original language, and the culture that accompanies it encourages a more global perspective in young learners. The influence of cultures on one another is the foundation for Canada’s attempts at multiculturalism, and the future of the multicultural project rests on young people with a wide perspective of the world.
Aside from the standard in-class ESL instruction, the CBE also offers the Literacy, English and Academic Development (L.E.A.D) Program. The program is for students whose educational life has been rife with interruptions and additional challenges. These students’ education paths may have been derailed by unrest or conflict in their home countries, or, as the Board suggests, a “lack of opportunity for prior schooling.” For these students, circumstances well outside of their control have left them behind other students of the same age. CBE’s intensive program seeks to help these learners reach their full educational potential. L.E.A.D. classes are much smaller than regular classes, and they focus on elevating the learner to a level where they can integrate into a regular classroom and continue their ESL instruction at a level appropriate for their age.
For newcomers, young and old alike, it is not just the language that can create difficulties. The CBE offers Cultural and Linguistic Support to students and their families to assist in navigating Canadian culture. While Canada is a generally very open and welcoming culture, there may be some practices that are foreign to newcomers, and some cultural practices that do not integrate into Canadian culture. This is not to say that cultural practices from immigrants’ home country should be immediately dropped upon immigrating to Canada. On the contrary, CBE’s cultural support program helps newcomers enrich their traditional practices with the influence of their new country.
In offering this program to students and their families, CBE helps new Canadians to “get to know our schools and our system, and to feel at home with us.” It is important for parents to feel that their child is getting the best, most appropriate care and education outside of the home. CBE’s diversity and support programs ensure that students and their families are informed and comfortable in their relationship with their chosen school.
On cultural education and integration, CBE’s Communications Advisor, Kara Layher, highlights a partnership with the Calgary Bridge Foundation for the Youth (CBFY). CBFY is an independent organization that works with the CBE to support “immigrant and refugee youth and their families with knowledge and information about Canadian culture and [the] schooling system.” With offices in CBE and Calgary Catholic District reception centres, CBFY facilitates the growth of immigrant children while also ensuring that they understand the peculiarities of Canadian culture.
Further, CBE also employs more than 132 interpreters who provide interpretation and translation support in 41 languages. Interpreters are available to assist both students and their caregivers in communicating clearly with teachers and other staff. As CBE’s website notes, “having an interpreter at a meeting will improve everyone’s understanding of the discussion.”