What is My English School?
A few months ago I received a letter from Germany. My friend wrote to me about her family of immigrants. She said that they all had the feeling of being in prison in their new country due to isolation from the society. The language barrier and different culture made them homesick. Of course she understood that comparing her life with prison was just a cry of despair common for new immigrants.
Actually it was not the first letter like this to me from Germany. I had received similar emails before. But the last one prompted me to wonder why I avoided the problem of being homesick. Looking back through the last four years of my life in Canada, I couldn’t recall any feelings of homesickness, isolation from the society or boredom.
In 2008 I came to Canada without any knowledge of English. In anticipation of a difficult situation on my arrival I had a written message for Immigration that read: “Hi! Sorry, I don’t speak English. Please call my husband who is meeting me, if you have any questions”. When later I told my Canadian friends about it they just didn’t believe me. “We thought it might happen in the movies only” they would say. My first two months in Canada I just spent at home. I was really happy enjoying my new life, but at the back of my mind my inner self persistently chided: “If you want to be a true Canadian you must start learning English!”
The Language Instruction for Newcomers/ English as a Second Language (LINC/ESL) school impressed me by its programs from the very beginning. I started noticing that Canada became closer and more familiar to me as a result of these programs than before when it was just a foreign country to me. Secondly, after my first six months at the school I had already enough language knowledge to find a full time job. After about another one and half years, I managed to get enrolled in an on-line college course. During all this time I continued to attend my LINC/ESL school.
I greatly appreciated the tremendous work in preparing these great ESL and educational programs that suited people of various ages, cultures and educational levels. We were very different here: a former University professor of mathematics back home before he came to Canada, former lawyers, and teachers, whereas in the same class some other students actually had never been to school in their entire lives until they came to Canada. Some students could speak three or four languages, others – their mother tongue only.
I consider the time that I spent at my school as the best experience in my life. In addition to my English classes I learned a lot about sociology and psychology, Canadian history and geography. It is a great educational and social project for new immigrants, and for Canada.
I was fortunate to participate in our class discussions and dialogues, to listen to interesting stories and opinions. They were very useful talks for all of us. They opened our minds, challenged many of our stereotypes, taught us tolerance, helped us to establish rapport with others and encouraged us to be successful in Canada.
“What does your school mean to you?” wondered my friend. I asked the same question of my fellow students and teachers. These were their answers:
“It is the first step on the road to success in Canada”.
“It is the first step of building my new career in a new country and it will better prepare me for college or university”.
“It is an intersection where in one place you can see the variety of remarkable different cultures”.
“It is like a small village. We all know each other here. We are really very close to each other and like a large family”.
“It is like a center for psychological help and adaptation assistance. The school provides assistance to new immigrants suffering from insecurity, loneliness, fear, anger or confusion; helps to gain hope for a better life”.
In my mind somehow our school was associated with the two beautiful songs, “What a Wonderful World” and “Jingle Bells”; it was also as multicolored as a rainbow and had the smell of tropical fruit.
On the whole my school had the face of woman because 95 – 97% of our students were females. Some were very young, whereas others were pretty mature; for example, the oldest student was a 93-year old great-grandmother. Many of them strictly observed their religious rules and were often seen praying in some secluded spots of the school.
You may ask about men, where were they? Well, they were usually breadwinners, so they worked to support their families and attended the school only when they had free time. As previously mentioned, the average educational level of immigrants was pretty high so they clearly understood the importance of LINC/ESL classes, but there were some sad exceptions. Some husbands banned their wives from attending school, unfortunately. I knew one woman who could come back to school only after her divorce.
The Pickering school has taught approximately 1,500 students during the last 10 years only! This is a testament to the devoted and highly professional teachers and their volunteers. Every one of them has brought something special to our school. For instance, volunteer Maria helped students with reading and pronunciation. Assistant-coordinator Maureen organized the school library. The staff regularly provided for students excursions to parks, museums, the Zoo, bowling clubs, etc.
It is also important to mention that the school is free for immigrants in Canada. In Kazakhstan I would have paid more than $18,000 for the 20 months that I studied here, based on the rate of $10 per hour for a local tutor, or it would be more than double and close to $37,000 for a native speaker. A real fortune that I saved here, indeed! Comparing with Germany, my friend informed me that she attended the beginner’s language level for free, but then she had to pay Euro 110 per month for the more advanced levels.
I agree that all immigrants do go through a difficult time of adaptation to their new life and it is all very individual, but I have a general impression that Canada’s “Welcome” is warmer and more comforting than that in Germany. It’s not only about the adaptation programs: in Germany, they have them too. I think it is the people, the Canadian people that matter the most: their ability to accept and embrace newcomers. Everyone finds warm support and understanding here. Every day when I went to school I felt happy and looked forward to the day when I would become a true Canadian. A proud Canadian!