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Life Gets Complicated If You Don’t Speak English in Canada

Poutine Sauce, Ottawa, May 2015
Poutine Sauce, Ottawa, May 2015

Before I started freelancing, I had two office jobs that came with a nice employee benefits package. My favourite perk? The insurance provider covered a portion of the cost of a massage therapist, no referral was needed.

I took full advantage of it. There is nothing that can’t be fixed with a one-hour massage session. If you ever want to corrupt me or make me talk, don’t bother getting me drunk—just promise a massage.

When I noticed a new registered massage therapist had arrived in our neighbourhood, I made an appointment.

The massage was good. Yet, I never came back and this decision was a real dilemma for me.

Did I lose the job and the benefits? No, I broke free from the golden handcuffs months later. The problem was the massage therapist: he barely spoke English and yes, it was an issue.

I think he was from the Balkans, so no lingua franca. I couldn’t understand what he was saying and he didn’t seem to understand me either. It was a real “dialogue de sourds” as the French say, a dialogue of the deaf, a modern farce. We couldn’t communicate.

I felt awful about not coming back because of a language issue. I think he was a refugee and as an immigrant, I sympathize with someone trying to rebuild his life in a new country.

However, as a client, I want to be able to communicate with the service provider.

Canada is a very multicultural country and more than 200 mother tongues or languages are spoken at home. The 2011 Census of Population specifies that “immigrant languages originate from all continents and belong to a variety of language families. In 2011, they constituted the mother tongue of more than 6.8 million people or 20.6% of the Canadian population.”

Impressive, isn’t it? And what’s even more impressive is that most immigrants master at least one of the two official languages of Canada. Sure, we all have various levels of proficiency but I rarely meet people who can’t speak or understand English, especially in a business context. Language matters. Canadians generally don’t mind accents and grammatical errors (they won’t dissect your sentences as the French do) but they expect those in customer-facing positions to have basic language skills.

That someone doesn’t speak either of our two official languages doesn’t offend me as a Canadian. Shouting “speak our language or get out!” is simplistic and racist.

However, a lack of language proficiency is certainly a tragedy on a personal level.

I only spoke very basic English when I first came to Canada—this is what happens when you root for Marxist ideas and study Mandarin at school. I clearly remember how frustrating it was not to understand what was going on around me. The news on the radio in the car sounded like “accident… bad…. thank you and goodnight”. Movies? Well, for once I was glad most Hollywood blockbusters could give glass lessons in transparency. Even trips to the supermarkets were a challenge—I once bought bleach instead of detergent (I knew it had something to do with cleaning, I remembered the word from one of Nirvana’s albums!)

I spent my first year and a half in Canada trying to survive in this environment I couldn’t quite decipher. And as a French, I was lucky: there were French-language books at the library and government services were offered in French as well. Once in a while, I crossed the bridge to Quebec and read all the signs in French just because I could.

I felt completely isolated from Canadians. I couldn’t do small talk, couldn’t relate to the culture, and didn’t understand jokes and when arguing with Feng, I always ended up in tears because crying was easier than expressing myself in English.

Long story short, I picked up English and voilà.

Federal skilled workers have to demonstrate language skills as part of the permanent residency application, so even if they aren’t fluent in English or French, they will be fine. This linguistic challenge is often faced by other family members, spouses or parents.

For instance, I have a hard time connecting with other parents at the playground because many mothers or grand-mothers don’t speak a word of English. They didn’t get a chance to learn or pick up the language because presumably, they take care of the kid(s) all day long. Sometimes, there are lucky to belong to a community where other immigrants speak their language. Sometimes, they are just isolated. I feel terrible for them because they are missing out on the best Canada has to offer—a sense of community.

A lack of language proficiency can taint your entire immigration experience. How can you feel at home if you don’t understand the language most spoken around you?

Presumably, if you are reading this article, your English is just fine and I’m preaching to the choir. But if you immigrate with other family members or if you are considering sponsoring relatives, make sure they are up to the linguistic challenge.

It’s not easy to go back to school but there are government-funded classes offered by the federal, provincial and territorial governments across Canada to newcomers. I’m not going to lie—despite widespread beliefs, even if immersed in the language, it will take longer than a fortnight to master the language. You will need patience, practice and determination.

But it is worth it.

The language connection is everything.

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