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Hub for Good

By Laura McCaffrey

Recognizing the Language-Learning Gap

Imagine moving to a foreign country and not knowing anyone. Imagine the stress of needing to find a job to support your family, but not speaking the language. Imagine trying to integrate into the community and culture, but not knowing where to go for support. For many new immigrants and refugees to Canada, this is the unfortunate reality.

There are, of course, resources and programs that help newcomers learn English. The problem is that traditional classroom-based learning is not effective for everyone—not to mention the fact that not everyone can afford to be unemployed for the months or years that it takes to learn a new language.

Professors Eva Kartchava and Michael Rodgers of Carleton University’s School of Linguistics and Language Studies recognized this gap and wanted to do something about it.

Developing the Concept

Kartchava and Rodgers feel strongly about finding innovative ways to provide language training to new immigrants.

“To me, being Here for Good means being useful. As a teacher and a second-language speaker myself, nothing brings me more satisfaction than knowing that I helped someone learn and reach their goals,” Kartchava shares.

In order to address the current gap in language training in Canada, the Carleton team needed to take a creative approach. Kartchava and Rodgers have long since recognized the potential of the ‘work-based language training’ approach—which has recently grown in popularity in Europe but is still relatively new to Canada—and felt that this would be the ideal solution to the challenges faced by new immigrants to the country. “The idea is to teach and develop real-world language skills that are needed in a particular industry or job type,” explains Rodgers.

As fate would have it, the Canadian government released a bid in 2017 to support research endeavours that proposed new ways of teaching a language. This extra push inspired the Carleton duo to get to work and begin contacting community organizations and potential partners that could help support their vision.

They found a perfect fit in the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). A local organization that supports immigrants by providing creative programs related to settlement and integration, employment, language instruction and counselling, OCISO was already exploring work-based language training methods.

From left to right: Alexandra Ross, Carleton alumnus and RAISE project manager at OCISO; Eva Kartchava, associate professor at Carleton; Gillian McLellan, research assistant at Carleton; Michael Rodgers, assistant professor at Carleton; Mazen Homzi, RAISE project facilitator at OCISO.

OCISO and Carleton quickly established a collaborative working relationship and a project concept: the Carleton team would develop a 10-module curriculum aimed at cultivating the language skills needed to succeed in the service sector, and OCISO would deliver the curriculum to clients of its existing Refugee and Immigrant Supports to Employment (RAISE) program. Together, OCISO and Carleton submitted joint funding proposals to multiple government agencies; in the spring of 2018, they were approved for funding from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Ontario.

In order to ensure maximum engagement in the program, the project team plans to deliver the curriculum in a blended learning format.

“The learning modules will be made available online through Moodle, an open-source learning management system, which will make it easy for the students to access and review the content from anywhere,” Kartchava notes. “The students will then be able to practice and use what they learn online in one-on-one sessions with volunteer language trainers. Through partnerships with local employers, the students are able to directly and immediately put their language skills to use ‘on the job.’”

Positive Impact

Although it’s early in the project’s three-year timeline, the team is confident about the impact the project will have. The work-based language training approach recognizes an alternative learning style, wherein traditional classroom-style teaching may not be effective. “It provides students with the specific language skills needed to succeed in their chosen sector, thus better preparing them for the actual demands they may face in their careers,” Rodgers remarks.

It also allows new immigrants to put their skills to use and begin working right away, as opposed to waiting until they’ve developed sufficient proficiency in a classroom setting—which may or may not be easily transferable to real-world situations. This means that the students can earn an income while they learn the language. It also means that they can meet other Canadians, make friends and organically integrate with the community and local culture. “This project speaks to what Canada is all about,” Kartchava muses with pride. “It speaks to our multicultural policy, to our language policy and to the idea of welcoming and helping people from all walks of life.”

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hubforgood@carleton.ca