Cultural lessons

🕔Dec 15, 2009

Miriam Colvin remembers her first experience with Smithers Community Services’ English as a Second Language (ESL) Settlement Program. As the newly appointed program manager, she attended a potluck meet-and-greet with learners and tutors, determined to make a good impression.

“I walked into the room and all of a sudden I was nervous,” she remembers. She approached two Hispanic women and introduced herself: “Hell-oh,” Colvin articulated. “How… are… you?”

The two women, longtime members of the program, flatly replied: “We speak English.”

“They laughed and I laughed,” Colvin says about her embarrassing initiation into the program, and the sudden realization of how it feels to walk into a group of people speaking a different language from your own. “So I try to think of them coming into a room of native English speakers.”

Now in her second year with the program, which started in Smithers in 2005, Colvin regularly sees the difference ESL training makes—not only to Canada’s newcomers, but to the tutors who volunteer their time to help their learning partners make the transition to a new community and culture. More than just language learning, the program creates a cultural exchange that helps to integrate northern BC’s diverse ethnic groups into community life.

There are nine communities in northern BC that have volunteer ESL programs: Fort St. James, Houston, Smithers, Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. More often than not, Colvin says, there is a shortage of tutors (there are currently six in Smithers, with three more in training). Students, she finds, tend to stick with the program.

“It seems to me that when people get involved they tend to stay with us,” Colvin says. “The program works in a way that is flexible with people’s lives. Usually, if someone leaves the program it’s because they’re leaving the valley or because their English is good enough that they don’t need the program anymore.”

Food for words

Trang Trinh has been in Canada 12 years and in Smithers for six. During her time here she did ESL training off and on, until partnering with retired schoolteacher Gemma Gillis last year. In the time they’ve been working together, not only has Gillis noticed a marked difference in Trinh’s English, but the Vietnamese native says even her children’s teachers have commented on the improvement.

As we chat, Trinh naturally turns to Gillis for clarification of a question or verification in her response, Gillis patiently offering help and encouragement. It’s obvious that what’s grown between them is more than just a teacher-student relationship.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with Trang. I’ve gotten to know her, but I’ve also gotten to know her family,” Gillis says. “I’ve also, in conversations with Trang, learned quite a bit about Vietnam.
“It’s not just Trang learning about Canada, it’s me learning about her background, too.”

The program is informal, with learner-tutor meetings taking place once a week for an hour or two, in any agreed-upon location. While family living rooms are often most comfortable, partners will also sometimes take their lessons to coffee shops or incorporate learning fieldtrips to grocery stores, banks or medical appointments.
While working on basic English skills like verb tenses and writing, Gillis and Trang also incorporate practical daily usage: they’ve studied the manual for Trang’s driving test together, read her children’s report cards and worked on résumés and job applications. Most recently, after Trang slipped and hurt her back, Gillis helped her fill out the paperwork for employment insurance.

But what Gillis gets out of the program is equally rewarding: “I can tell you what’s the best part for me — the food she cooks for me,” she laughs, adding, “You can learn the actual English in the classroom, but this is so much more. You can’t beat one-to-one contact.”

Cultural connections

The program’s flexibility allows tutors to work on whatever needs their learner requires. Although assessments are made according to the Canadian Language Benchmarks, Colvin points out that different people have different strengths: someone might excel in reading but need help with pronunciation.

One of the biggest challenges when working with non-English speakers is finding ways to connect with the people who need it most. Trinh learned about the program through her sister-in-law, who is also a learner. Similarly, most come to the program through family connections or by word-of-mouth. Colvin also receives referrals from medical practitioners and through the school system.

“The challenges are often isolation and therefore a lack of confidence that can bleed into many areas. When you’re adding that onto being in a new culture and a new landscape, it can be very challenging,” Colvin says. “Sometimes people are very highly educated in their own countries—they have multiple languages, they have professions—and when they come here they’re starting over again.”

Far from just teaching English, the program invites newcomers into a new society and helps them find the resources they need. It connects them with people outside their often limited social circles, provides opportunities to converse in their new language and hosts a handful of events each year representative of local culture, such as sleigh rides, bowling or pumpkin carving.

When a learner leaves the community, Colvin works to connect them with a similar program in their new home.

“People often say thank you through food,” she says, describing how a Chinese participant welcomed her to the program with a plate of dumplings. “I get so much positive feedback. People are excited to be part of something.”

Operating on a limited budget from the Ministry of Advanced Education and funded on a year-to-year basis, the ESL program’s future, like many social programs in BC, is perpetually uncertain.
However, Colvin is currently working to create partnerships with other organizations such as the Northwest Community College, the public library, Smithers Art Gallery, StrongStart BC and the Pregnancy Outreach Centre in the hope of creating a stronger community learning network.

“The English we’re concentrating on teaching is everyday English language use,” Colvin says. “Helping someone get a library card is as equally valued as making sure they pronounce the word library correctly.”

More information about the English as a Second Language Settlement Program can be found at