Don Cayo: Canada needs to teach immigrants better language skills

posted on December 30, 2014

By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

For the past decade or two, immigrants to Canada have been better educated than at any time in our history. Yet, these newcomers still tend to get stuck with lesser jobs and smaller paycheques, in some cases quite a lot smaller, than their Canadian-born neighbours.

This doesn’t make much sense in a country with a rapidly aging workforce and in an era when technology and the practice of offshoring have combined to reduce demand for menial workers and place a premium on higher skills. Why can’t well-educated immigrants cash in?

The short answer — or at least part of it — is the difficulty many immigrants have communicating in English or French. But the complete picture is more nuanced, according to two recent studies from the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network.

It turns out that a significant factor is not only whether an immigrant’s mother tongue is English or French, but if not, then how closely related it is to one or the other of Canada’s official languages. For example, immigrants who grow up with a Nordic language, which shares two of four linguistic roots with English, are likely to earn six per cent less than native-born Canadians, whereas the gap widens to 33 per cent for those who speak a dialect of Chinese, which has no common roots with English or French.

Most Canadians, regardless of where we were born or what language we spoke growing up, can intuitively understand the basic case made by two researchers, Casey Warman of Dalhousie University in Halifax and Christopher Worswick of Carleton in Ottawa. They find, not surprisingly, that recent immigrants with limited English language abilities struggle in the job market even when they have high levels of education.

This is an easy premise to observe or document — for example by comparing the earnings of immigrants of those who grew up in English- or French-speaking countries to those who did not.

But two other researchers, Ana Ferrer of University of Waterloo and Alicia Adsera of Princeton, take this a step further, looking at the link between immigrants’ economic success and what they call linguistic proximity — the degree of similarity between an immigrant’s mother tongue and one or both of Canada’s official languages.

They found that not only do immigrants from countries with languages closely related to English or French get better jobs when they come to Canada — specifically, jobs requiring social and analytical skills rather than just brawn — the difference in earning potential is magnified when the level of education is higher. In other words, a labourer will make a little less than Canadian-born co-worker, but a specialist or professional will make a lot less.

Of course, it’s not the mother tongue per se that causes the problem. Ferrer and Adsera consider this measure merely a proxy for which immigrants are likely to speak one or more of Canada’s languages well and which are not, and they chose it only because there’s no broadly based data available on language competence.

Both studies have important policy implications in all parts of Canada, but nowhere more than in Metro Vancouver where we not only have the fourth-highest proportion (45 per cent) of foreign-born residents, but also a great many who grew up with languages far removed from English. The bottom line is that these immigrants have more trouble reaching their economic potential in personal terms, and also can’t contribute fully to the broader economy. And the more they could potentially contribute — that is, the better educated they are — the further they fall short.

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