Inside the Walls of Language Learning

Originally published at

The reception room is filled with overflowing shelves of brochures about employment and social services. One poster shouts bolded greetings in multiple languages. A few women in colourful headscarves are waiting in line and a man wearing a winter coat despite the warm fall-like temperature passes by. In the hallways, you can hear the hard R’s of Arabic, lyrical words of a romantic language and others I don’t recognize.

In one classroom, teacher Sharon Benson is giving an animated explanation of ridings and candidates in the federal election. None of the students are citizens so they can’t vote, but they’re still eager to learn. Benson asks the group what election issues they care about.

“To pay my rent!” says a man named Emmanuel.

“Being a citizen,” shouts someone else.

“To bring my family here!” yells another, greeted by enthusiastic head nods.

It’s an intermediate English class of newly landed immigrants and refugees. The Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, OCISO, provides a Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada program called OCISO LINC. It’s a government-funded English training program for people 18 and older.

Emmanuel, a single father of two teenagers, is in Benson’s class. He came to Canada as a refugee from Burundi three years ago with a degree and experience working in business administration. He knows he has to improve his English before he can get a job in his field.

“When I speak English, it’s difficult to speak like Canadian people,” he says. “Many people from different countries are here and have different pronunciations for language, but we have to work hard to change how we speak.”

Classes are five hours each day and it takes 250-300 hours of class time to move up to the next level, with more than ten Canadian Language Benchmark levels total. OCISO LINC at 1800 Bank St. employs nine teachers, provides instruction for 164 students and offers childcare for students with kids.

Laurie Fraser, director of OCISO LINC, was a teacher at the centre for 10 years and says with teaching language, comes teaching culture.

Fraser recalls teaching classes about kinds of housing and being intrigued by the different reactions. When she showed her classes a picture of a tent in a refugee camp, some students would wonder who could ever live that way while others got excited, exclaiming “that’s where we lived, that’s home!” She says her work is always interesting and she’s learned it’s all about perspective.

“I asked one of those refugees ‘Are you rich or are you poor?’ Any Canadian would call her poor. She’s on social assistance, she’s in a tiny apartment in a big horrible building,” she says. “But in her mind, she’s rich now because she’s lived in a tent with many other people.”

Benson says the first class she taught at OCISO LINC had 15 students from 15 different countries who spoke 15 different languages. The mix is different every year, Fraser says, depending on which refugees the government allows into the country.

Ontario welcomed about 11,500 refugees in 2014, most of whom were from Africa and the Middle East, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Last year Canada accepted 23,286 refugees. Although a rise from 2014, this number has dropped about 28 per cent from 2005. But the numbers are changing.

With the incoming wave of Syrian refugees, Fraser says language is essential to integration and the OCISO LINC program plans to expand in the coming months. Fraser says the government has promised to increase funding soon, but she notes “it will be sudden when it comes, we’ll have to move very fast.”

Looking at the demographic of Syrians, Fraser says they are expecting the wave of refugees to be educated.

“We respond to whatever we get,” she says, adding that about 77 per cent of Syrian women are educated and the overall Syrian literacy rates are very high. “For them, I think the challenges are going to be more of getting their credentials into English… They may already know how to be an engineer, just not in English yet.”

Back in Benson’s class, Saud and Harki sit together. Saud, 19, came to Ottawa five months ago from Sudan. She says Benson’s “all smiles with students” and the program provides a “strong education and excellent teachers.” Harki came to Canada in 2010 from Nepal and has had trouble in other schools because of her epilepsy. Both girls say they enjoy the language program and plan to go to college or university after improving their English skills.

Lin Chen immigrated from China in 2003. She was first a student in LINC courses and then took a one-year program at Carleton University to obtain her certificate of teaching English as a second language. She then taught at OCISO LINC for five years. Chen, who has a background in engineering, is now finishing her PhD in Applied Linguistics at Carleton University. She traces her change of career path to her experience with the language instruction program.

Chen’s original plan was to do a certificate program in Canada and get a job. Twelve years later, she’s still in school and on a different path. For women like Harki and Saud, it can be challenging to find a job in Canada without education, she says.

“They’re trapped,” Chen says. “They don’t want to go back so they have to stay here. But if they didn’t get a chance to learn English, they end up in jobs like factories.”

Chen says her first job in Canada was at a fast food restaurant, a big change from her position as an engineering manager in China.

Benson makes no secret of the admiration she has for her students. She uses the word “heroic” when talking about their motivation, ambition and ability to adjust to their new reality, which often involves insensitivity about their religious and cultural practices.

“It’s the cultural dispossession… When you think about prayer for people who are Muslim, you’re from a community where everyone is doing the same thing together all the time and all of sudden we say, ‘See that broom closet over there, that’s where you can pray’.”

The class comes to a close and the hallways revert back into a mosaic of languages, jumbled with snippets of English.

Fraser says OCISO LINC aims to provide the Canadian culture and language training students can take with them outside the colourful walls of the school. Although the experience of coming to a new country is isolating, she’s seen acceptance from the Ottawa community to newcomers.

“We’re very good at supporting new arrivals, especially in big cities,” she says. “Canadians have such a commitment to helping people once they have arrived.”

In the coming months with thousands of Syrian refugees coming to Canada, Fraser says she expects this support and welcoming attitude will only continue.


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