ESL Classes Produce Un-Canadians

ESL classes produce un-Canadians

Mark Hasiuk
Vancouver Courier
Editorial Opinion
Friday, August 29, 2008

Next week, students across the province will head back to school–including approximately 13,000 students enrolled in the Vancouver school district's English-as-a-second-language program, which provides K-12 language instruction to students of varying levels of English proficiency.

A damning report, released last May by an independent consultant hired by the school district, blasted the ESL program and its inability to accommodate the immigrant tide.

The report said 91 per cent of Chinese immigrant students, who make up more than 30 per cent of program participants, viewed their ESL training and other “transition” programs in a negative light. According to the report, Chinese students feel “trapped” in classrooms packed with non-English speakers.

The report also candidly noted that white English speakers are now the minority in many Vancouver schools and that the district can no longer rely on a natural desire by immigrants to assimilate. The report called for increased “civics education” to better acclimatize immigrant students to Canadian society, and pointed to a prevailing sentiment among Chinese students who “rather than seeing themselves as Vancouverites… said that they were Chinese.”

That was a tough report, straight from the horse's mouth. The findings should have spurred public educators into action. So what's been done in the five months since Chinese immigrant students raised their hands and asked for help? Virtually nothing.

“I don't think there is a huge focus on the civics education,” says William Wong, a district official responsible for placing students in ESL. “Teachers do teach Canadian history and geography, but there's not a curriculum specifically developed for civics.”

Wong added that, despite past attempts at discouraging Mandarin in ESL classrooms, students continue to converse in their native tongue. Fair enough. It's tough to combat high concentrations of non-English speakers in ESL classrooms. There are only so many rooms for so many students.

But increased civics education is a no-brainer.Unfortunately, the concept of civic indoctrination of immigrants, especially from Asia, makes some folks downright squeamish. It taps irrational feelings of white guilt, stoked by the memory of 20th century Canadian callousness such as the Chinese Head Tax and internment for Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War.

Civics lessons are seen as authoritarian–an effort to dilute Asian culture in Vancouver schools. But that's exactly the point.

All education is based on a foundation of principles, which feature their own intrinsic biases. Unless incoming ESL students are armed with a solid understanding of Canadian ethical, moral and political conventions, they become confused. They revert to familiarity. Chinese immigrants only hang with Chinese immigrants. Their English is terrible. And so on.

In many respects, Vancouver is a new experiment in the New World. Our city's role as a North American gateway to Asia, especially since the Hong Kong influx of the 1980s, has transformed the Lower Mainland. According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Metro Vancouver's 2.5 million people are Chinese. Such numbers were unimaginable during most of the 20th century when European and Asian cultures remained largely detached.

The main problem with the Vancouver school district's ESL program lies not in the program's many details, which are important and require immediate action, but in the failing notion of voluntary assimilation and the unwillingness of educators to Canadianize immigrant students.

The consequences of continued inaction are grave. School hallways will remain segregated and the Lower Mainland will continue to balkanize along ethnic lines. An entire generation of Asian immigrants may grow up with little sense of civic responsibility. Their allegiances, tied mainly to personal economics and a distant native land, will contribute to globalization but add to their local community's foreign status.

Blank stares, once born from English misunderstanding, will grow more frequently from an unwillingness to care.