What best motivates immigrants to learn an official Canadian language?

April 18, 2015

By Vancouver Sun, Blog |

Most people recognize that the immigrants who are most likely to succeed in Canada are those who master either of the country’s official languages. A host of studies back up this conclusion.

But opinions range all over about how best to help newcomers take on the hard task of becoming fluent in English or French.

Should stricter language requirements be expected before immigrants are even approved entry to Canada?

Should language standards also be higher in Canada itself, including for roughly 300,000 foreign students?

Should government-sponsored second-language classes be free, or are there more effective ways to motivate?

Before facing these questions, however, we need to recognize it’s only “most” people who agree the immigrants most likely to integrate are those adept in English or French.

Many people in Canada don’t think it’s important for immigrants to learn either language. They argue newcomers must be offered services in their mother tongue. Or they don’t believe immigrants, or anyone, should be expected to venture beyond their ethno-cultural group.

The 2011 census discovered more than one in five Canadians speak a language other than English or French at home. In Metro Vancouver, the portion of residents who don’t speak an official language at home rises to one of three. Most common are Chinese, Punjabi and Tagalog.

It’s been difficult, however, for demographers to determine the total number of such Canadians who cannot speak either French or English; even though the problem is believed most acute among seniors, stay-at-homes and those functioning in the underground economy.

Nevertheless, an internal 2012 Immigration report showed a rising proportion of people in Canada, 600,000, do not speak English or French even on the job.

And 400,000 of these admit they cannot carry on a conversation in either official language.

Albert Lo, head of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, said Canadians “don’t talk enough” about the importance of learning one of the country’s two official languages.

Based in Metro Vancouver, Lo is aware many new immigrants, particularly from East Asia, “simply don’t know” the country’s two official languages are English and French.

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