There’s a thirst to starting to learn a new language, a glee when one deciphers  a new word independently.  It reminds me of the way my children laughed when they first made that letter-sound-meaning connection.

I’m learning Arabic  — my first new language since my teens.  And yes, the language brain is not what it was, but “tho’ much is taken much abides” as the wise poet said. * What I didn’t expect was to be having so much fun.

But what is most important about this thirst is that it’s contagious.  A group of learners will spread the excitement amongst themselves, and beyond that, to the instructors and school staff.  I missed out on the big waves of refugee immigration — from Vietnam and Somalia — but I do remember when  the last big group of Colombian immigrants crossed the border and how our halls were alive with the buzz of Spanish and the energy of people for whom learning English was a true survival mechanism.  Every week they could see quantifiable progress in their English; what’s more, this progress translated into greater ease that they felt as they settled into their new homes.

In recent years, immigration has been restricted to more proficient speakers.  The tone has changed.  English classes for most have been a choice rather than a necessity.  While this has its advantages — students with more specific ideas of what they want from a class –there is something lacking.  We can spend weeks discussing the use of infinitive versus gerund forms, but even if that information stays with them, knowing  the difference between “I had trouble doing that.”  I got into trouble for doing that” and “I went to a lot of trouble to do that”  will not necessarily make it appreciably easier for them to make small talk on the bus.

But now…

Surely you’ve seen the news photos of Our Handsome Prime Minister hugging parka-clad children. ** Canada has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees over the past 7 months.  Many of them have settled in Toronto, and a great deal of them are at a basic English level.  Again, we have an influx of people for whom English is literally a survival need, and who are clearly aware of its importance. I have met members of this community in different settings and in each case I have been struck by the intensity of their motivation to learn.

This could be our opportunity, a chance to infuse new energy into the ESL system, on the level of funding (1 student = x government $), but also on the level of morale.  A flood of new  students, especially at the beginner level, could bring that contagious thirst that would give all involved a new sense of purpose.

And yet…

I’m not hearing about that.  I think the students are coming.  When I talk to colleagues at the Board, some of them tell me that they have seen their numbers leap.  But I hear no official pronouncement from the Board welcoming these new learners, no billboards promising broad educational vistas to beaming newcomers. What’s more, I’m bombarded with frustratingly ill-informed messages from the media, stories of newcomers on 6-month waiting lists for English classes, or even one organization dismissing other sources of ESL education as “inadequate” for refugees.*** Even worse, I’m not hearing these claims refuted by the school boards.  I have first hand knowledge that classrooms are sitting half-empty.  We do have space for those students and we do have first-rate programs for helping them.  Why is nobody screaming this from the rooftops?

Community language organizations need to step up, to promote themselves as the best and most accessible option for the refugee community. This makes good business sense, but it’s also common courtesy: we need to let our New Canadians know that they are welcome here.  Management also has to improve internal communications.  Present this to your employees as an exciting new development, a challenge and an opportunity to learn more about another culture, a real chance to make a difference.  Make them see that the work they do is of vital importance — to each individual learner, but also to the country as a whole.

Before you yell at me

Yes I know.  I’m essentially an outsider at this point.  You may bristle at my easy criticisms. You may argue that in fact you are taking many steps to accommodate these new learners.  That’s as may be, but I’m not hearing it from where I am, and I’m pretty close to the ESL world.  You  should be making a noise that I can hear across the city.  Wake up, guys!  This is the work that we were born to do.

*this quote set off a chain of memories and associations that evolved into its own blogpost 

** at least he managed to keep his shirt on this time, as opposed to this one and this one; there’s also this.

***not linking or naming the parties involved, but it definitely did happen