Social challenges of language diversity

When Andy Yan was born in Vancouver, his parents made the decision to teach him Cantonese, their heritage language, as well as English. Bilingualism, which wasn’t common at the time, turned out to be an asset for Yan. Now a senior city planner, Yan fills the gaps between Chinese and English-speaking communities.

Few have the same luck as Yan.In 2016, the number of people across the country who reported an immigrant mother tongue rose from 6.8 million in 2011 to 7.7 million, according to Statistics Canada. In Metro Vancouver, Chinese dialects, including Mandarin and Cantonese, outpaced Punjabi and became the fastest growing language, followed by Tagalog, Korean and Farsi.

In order to catch up with the broader society, however, immigrant families prioritize English or French over other languages.

“Social cohesion depends on social communication. And obviously, if people are unable to communicate, that makes social cohesion much more difficult. So the extent to which people can learn English as a second language is very important,” says Dan Hiebert, a UBC geography professor.

Bridging two communities

A variety of institutes are impacted by increasing immigrant languages and this calls for more productive translation services,” Hiebert says. “For example, libraries have to attempt to keep up with the populations that they serve. You can extrapolate that eventually people that are coming from these different linguistic groups are going to need things like health care and services for the elderly. City planners who deal with social issues have to pay attention to this.”

The reality is that ressources aren’t always readily available. Among highly-educated Iranian-Canadians, many end up jobs unrelated to their education or professional experience due to lack of language services for them.


Andy Yan, urban planner and director of The City Program at SFU. | Photo courtesy of Andy Yan

“They were registered, for example, doctors, nurses or architects. They are very well-respected [in Iran]. Some of them come here, and they have to start from scratch. Their documents have to be approved so they go to a lot of examinations,” says Nassreen Filsoof, president of Canadian Iranian Foundation. “The professional language is totally different in Iran than here. What happens is that they take [examinations] a few times and become disappointed.”

Language barriers are a common concern in all immigrant communities. Alden E. Habacon is a diversity and inclusion strategist of Filipino descent. When he moved to Canada at the age of two, his parents urged him to learn English, even at the cost of their mother tongue Tagalog.

“My parents pushed me really hard to improve my English. I did lose my fluency in Tagalog. I can understand it but I find it very difficult to speak it in most circumstances,” says Habacon.

He suggests immigrant families retain their heritage languages at the same time. Yan agrees and argues that instead of compelling individuals, governments should do a better job to foster social cohesion.

“Translation services are inadequate towards the need of the population in Chinatown. How the government tries to capture feedback is not there to offer people who speak Chinese or are afraid of using English [an opportunity] to add to the conversation,” Yan says.

A pull of mother tongues on immigrant families

For Yan, it’s troublesome to think immigrants need to immediately learn French or English.

Alden E. Habacon, diversity and inclusion strategist. | Photo courtesy of Alden E. Habacon

“That’s a really big problem because it breaks away from the fact that our strength is in that diversity,” he says.

For immigrant families like Filsoof’s, to maintain that strength can be painful. Filsoof has tried for decades with little luck to teach Farsi to her children, who are now grown-ups struggling to pass their heritage to the next generation.

“I tried very hard to speak Farsi at home, and I still do. But my children have difficulty expressing themselves in Farsi. They speak something in Farsi but [if] they are stuck on it, they use the English word. In what they are speaking, you may hear a lot of English words,” says Filsoof.

She hopes there will be a Farsi school to keep the language alive. The same can be said about Mandarin. As Habacon points out, it’s unbelievable that Vancouver only has one public school with a Mandarin immersion program.

“That doesn’t make any sense in a city with so many Mandarin speakers, so many people of Chinese descent. We have such strong connection to China in so many different ways, and yet there’s only one [Mandarin immersion program],” says Habacon. “There’s no policy in place that actually encourages more linguistic diversity, to ensure our communities are able to sustain the diversity that we have.”

No one is a bad Canadian

Sherry S. Yu, a former senior research associate for Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Media in B.C. now assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Her approach to increasing immigrant languages depends on ethnic media to facilitate dialogues between communities.

Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, 2016

“It can be a barrier at the beginning when newcomers don’t speak English at all. There’s a significant limitation for those people to interact with individuals and the broader society whose official languages are English and French,” says Yu. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t function as citizens of Canada. If ethnic media provide enough information of what’s going on, this assists their integration and settlement.”

For Yu, social cohesion comes in two ways.

“It’s not that immigrants are expected to integrate to the broader society, but there’s also a fair share of responsibility on the broader society to pay attention to these new members of the society and be able to integrate to their cultures as well,” she says.

Both Yu and Yan see language barriers as a potential opportunity.

“You may not be able to speak English, but that doesn’t mean you are going to become a bad Canadian. [One’s immigrant language] is something that one can use throughout one’s life, and it ensures they can work in a global economy. Similarly, we have to ensure that we keep those avenues of learning English and French,” says Yan.

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