Refugees encounter many systemic barriers when they get to Canada. Among these are underemployment, the non-recognition of their foreign credentials and experience, low income, unaffordable housing, racism and discrimination, and language learning.
Learning and speaking one of the official languages is key to the integration into Canadian society. The ability to communicate helps refugees to navigate their new lives as they apply for jobs, go to school, get involved in their communities, and participate in society.
Refugees are often disadvantaged from the start of their time in Canada. A 2017 IRCC evaluation found that 63% refugees served did not speak either of the official languages before they arrived in Canada. Among all permanent residents in Canada, 23% felt they could not converse in either official language.
Language training takes time, dedication, and commitment. As part of its integration program, the federal government funds the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) and the Cours de langue pour les immigrants au Canada (CLIC). But it can take five to eight years to learn a new language to a level that is comparable to native speakers. One 2009 report shows that refugees spend 83 more hours in class to complete a course than immigrants from all other classes.
While language training is offered early in the integration and settlement process, the reality is that it is often abandoned by refugees who seek employment to pay the bills and to send money to their families abroad. A LINC evaluation showed that one of the reasons why newcomers had quit previous LINC courses was to pursue employment. Their financial independence is the priority. This is especially concerning because both labour market attachment and language acquisition are core areas of settlement and integration.
An evaluation of the LINC programs identified various weakness, including the limited data about the dropout rates in refugee language training. Calculating dropout rates is not straightforward because it is not known when each student joined, transferred, or quit. Currently there is simply no data tracking the progression of an individual learner. The lack of testing means that there are no clear milestones of progression within LINC programs. This may also be compounded by the fact that local service provider organizations, whose mandates and operations vary, are responsible for delivering LINC programs nationally. This causes uneven quality of delivery among LINC providers. Without a standard curriculum, there is no consistency in the way LINC is taught across Canada.
Language is one of the strongest elements in a person’s self-definition as an individual and a social being. Lacking language abilities can, and often does, limit civic, social, and economic engagement with society at large and serves to perpetuate inequality.
But the Canadian Government can improve the integration of refugees and address their barriers to language training. Here are four recommendations to improve language acquisition among refugees:
- Ensure that newcomers with young children have access to childcare services so that they can participate in language training.
- Improve data collection from partner agencies that track language training dropout rates and progression rates of each student.
- Provide refugees with a weekly stipend for learning, as is done by the Quebec Government, to incentivise newcomers to prioritize language training over seeking employment.
- Implement a mandated curriculum for LINC and CLIC programs as part of resettlement to ensure language fluency, service delivery consistency, and quality.
Taken together, these steps could assist in providing an equitable integration process for refugees, prioritizing language skills training over employment attainment.
Approaching language acquisition by addressing these barriers will help to ensure that refugees are properly equipped with the language skills required to fully function and integrate into Canadian society.