Language Barriers to Integration: A Canadian Perspective

Albert Galiev,


Sepideh Masoodi,

University of Calgary


The Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program, established in 1992, is a federally funded initiative with the aim of facilitating the social, cultural and economic integration of immigrants and refugees into Canada through language instruction in either English or French. By exploring discourses of 30 immigrant students of English as a Second Language (ESL) regarding their language practices and experiences within and outside the program, the study argues that while immigrants realize the importance of language learning for social and cultural integration through the LINC program, they believe that it is professional accreditation that matters the most.

While integration through language learning is mainly seen as the responsibility of immigrants (Evaluation of the LINC Program 7), little research has been done with a focus on immigrants’ own perceptions of integration and their experiences both within the programs being implemented and within the communities into which they are integrating. Existing studies suggest that immigrants’ language learning experiences cannot be fully understood outside of their social and cultural context, and a number of contributing factors which could either hinder or facilitate their language learning and integration should be examined (Derwing and Thomson 44–45).

Through in-depth semi-structured interviews conducted individually and in focus groups, immigrants in Alberta reflect on their experiences within and outside of the program. The findings demonstrate that while language proficiency and cultural and social familiarity are essential tools for the integration of newcomers, integration as such cannot be achieved without first reaching their professional goals.

1 Introduction

Often called a land of immigrants, Canada is recognized as one of the top migrant destination countries in the world (Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 1). The new settlers bring a vast diversity of languages and cultures. The Canadian government has explicitly embraced this diversity through federally legislated policies. For example, The Multiculturalism Act of 1971 recognized Canada as a multicultural nation within a bilingual framework and proclaimed “cultural pluralism” as a defining concept of Canadian identity (Ashworth 35–49). Alongside and often despite this multicultural rhetoric, newcomers are encouraged to increase their social, economic and cultural integration into Canadian society. One of the most heavily emphasized pathways to integration is knowledge and proficiency in one of the official languages.

While public discourse seems to stress the accountability of immigrants in the process of integration, the newcomers’ own understanding of the socio-cultural and socio-political aspects of integration is often left out of discussion. This paper argues that the barriers to social, cultural and economic integration cannot be comprehensively discussed without bringing immigrants’ own perceptions of integration to the negotiation table. The study aims to give a voice to those who are participating in the process of integration and placing these voices within the din of the greater integration discourses. The main question leading the study is: to what extent do language acquisition and proficiency help immigrants facilitate their integration? With this question in mind, the study follows the principles of a language policy and planning (LPP) theoretical framework and attempts to look into the macro and micro level discourses on the integration of newcomers in Canada.

2 Research Framework

The discipline of LPP is a relatively new sociolinguistic sub-domain that has gradually evolved over the past half-century (Ricento 2000a, 196–213). Ricento and Hornberger (420) emphasize the multi-layered nature of LPP and how the macro-level official or non-official policies interact with the micro-level domains. Ricento suggests that looking into micro-level practices and their interaction with macro-level discourses could bridge the gap between the multi-layered construct of LPP (2000b, 2–3). In a similar vein, this study also attempts to “unpeel the onion” of LPP and bridge the gap between micro and macro, local and national, as well as lived and prescribed. For this purpose, the study focuses on the process of LPP at three levels consisting of 1) planning (at the prescribed federal government / macro level), 2) implementation (at the regional institution / meso level), and 3) evaluation (at the experienced individual / micro level) (borrowed from Johnson 20). Following this framework, the study first lo
oks into policy planning at the macro level. Afterwards, there is an attempt to see whether and how the policies are put into practice. Finally, immigrants, as direct participants in the programs, evaluate these and implementation practices.

Within the suggested model, policy planning is investigated by referring to the discourse surrounding immigration in Canada at the macro level. Texts and documents by Citizenship and Immigration Canada have been used for this purpose. At the next level, the programs available for the implementation of the policies are investigated. At the evaluation level, the life experiences of newcomers to Canada have been explored. Based on the proposed framework, the study looks into the perceptions of the immigrant population as the target group of the macro level policies.
Planning ———————- Implementation ————————- Evaluation
↓                                                                     ↓                                                                   ↓
Macro level discourse ———— Programs offered ————-Immigrants’ life experiences

2.1 Policy Planning

According to the Department of Canadian Heritage (Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 2006–2007 31), Canada has been accommodating a diverse immigrant population within the multicultural framework it introduced in 1971. However, while plurality as the defining characteristic of Canadian society has been overtly emphasized in various documents, the government of Canada has repeatedly been encouraging newcomers to increase their level of linguistic integration. This is reflected in the message from the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Official Languages and the Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity), Jason Kenney and Josée Verner, (Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 2006–2007 1). “We encourage communities to participate fully in Canadian society by enhancing their level of economic, social and cultural integration and we will continue to promote integration in order to encourage prosperity and social cohesion.” The essentiality of such integration is emphasized in another statement by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 2009-2010 5), where pluralism is called “a pillar of the Canadian society.”

However, among the hurdles that the new settlers face in the process of integration into Canadian society, language barriers are mentioned frequently (Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants 26–34). At the 11th National Metropolis Conference, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, calls proficiency in Canada’s official languages “a pathway to socio-economic integration.” Such discourse reiterates the belief that proficiency in the official languages facilitates the process of integration for newcomers to Canada.

As the report on the evaluation of the LINC program states:

A key strategic goal of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is to support the settlement, adaptation and integration of newcomers to Canada. Settlement involves meeting the initial, basic needs of newcomers; adaptation refers to immigrants’ ability to realize some of the benefits of settling in this country; and integration is the ultimate goal of this process, whereby immigrants become fully functioning members of Canadian society (Evaluation of the LINC Program 1).

To recapitulate, while Canada has always been receptive to diversity and pluralism, the ultimate goal of immigration is portrayed as social, cultural and economic integration. Often one of the main requirements for such integration is seen as the mastery of Canada’s official languages, which is promoted at the policy planning level.

2.2 Policy Implementation

At the implementation level, the study looks into how the policies regulated by macro-level discourse are implemented in micro-level settings; in particular how the policies are put into practice and whether there have been provisions and means for the implementation of policies. Since the focus of this study is the linguistic means of integration, this translates to the implementation of policies related to language instruction.

The Government of Canada invests heavily in settlement programs and services for newcomers. One such initiative is the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada or LINC. Founded in 1992, it provides instruction in one of the official languages (either English or French) and aims at facilitating the social, cultural and economic integration of immigrants and refugees into Canada (Evaluation of the LINC program). Called “a key element of the federal immigrant integration strategy” (ibid. 3), LINC enables eligible permanent residents to benefit from the language training provided in a variety of ways including full time, part time, home study, distance learning, etc. (see ibid. for eligibility criteria and types of programs). The intention is to meet the individual needs of the learners and serve a large number of newcomers (Cray 23). The initiative applies special descriptors for the levels of language proficiency to rate and monitor the progress of each client and awards the LINC certificate to those who successfully complete the program. Accordingly, LINC is a means of implementing the policies set at the macro level, aiming at facilitating the newcomers’ integration into Canadian society.

3 The Setting of the Study and the Methodology

The study involved interviews with 30 Canadian permanent residents who attended LINC program classes at two immigrant settlement service agencies in Calgary, Alberta at the time of the study. The limitations of the paper do not allow elaborating extensively on the demographic profile of our participants, as it ranged greatly in terms of age, level of education, socio-economic and socio-cultural status as well as ethnic background. Furthermore, research participants varied in terms of their immigration status, such as family class, economic immigrants and refugees. Due to the limited sampling size of interviewees, the results of this investigation should not in any way be considered a way to over-generalize phenomenon in national contexts, but rather to provide new insights both locally and provincially.

Interview here is defined as a “directed conversation” (qtd. in Charmaz 25) that permits exploration of a particular topic and experience. The interview questions challenge the participant to describe and reflect upon his or her experiences in ways that seldom occur in life; they are thought provoking, exploratory and are open for interpretation (Mackey and Gass 139). Semi-structured in-depth interviews allow us to facilitate and guide the process of uncovering layers of the questions raised in the research. They are appropriate here as they acknowledge a certain structure and guidance via the initial questions, but at the same time are flexible enough to accommodate emerging themes in the discussion (Hatch 94).

If interviewing is our primary source of data collection, focus group discussions are employed in order to supplement information gathered in individual interviews and to verify them through triangulation and member check (Hatch 133). Interviews took approximately one hour to conduct and were audiotaped. The data was processed and analyzed using the qualitative program called Nvivo 9, which provides tools for classifying, arranging and sorting texts and significantly reduces time for data management.

4 Findings: Newcomer’s Views

It is important to note here that the purpose of the study is to deconstruct immigrants’ experiences within the framework or multi-layered LPP and explore its micro- and macro- level dimensions (see Ricento for discussion). While embedding critical elements in it, such an approach is of a more analytical and synthesizing nature. It is not the intention of the authors to align themselves with the critical constructivist /post -modernist traditions of social theory. Nevertheless, several rich-data themes emerged during qualitative analysis of the discursive data.

4.1 Bilingualism Policy- Official and Local

Proficiency in English and not in French is necessary for communication and interaction within Canadian society at the local level. While Canada promotes itself officially as a bilingual country, immigrants maintain that proficiency in English rather than French seems to be crucial for integration in predominantly English-speaking Alberta. This finding, while unsurprising at first glance is, nonetheless, relevant on a few levels. Immigrants’ perceptions of bilingualism in Canada seem to change drastically after arriving. The analysis of their pre- and post-arrival perceptions of bilingualism and macro-level language policy in Canada allows us to conclude that newcomers often confuse language policy in Canada with contextual and localized micro-level dimensions of language policy in Alberta. As the findings reveal, immigrants who arrive in Calgary are flummoxed by the lack of French-speaking there as they tend to believe that Canada promotes itself as a bilingual country (for further discussion see Galiev’s interview by Boesveld for the National Post, “If You’re Canadian, Why aren’t You Bilingual”). Such confusion is very well articulated in this excerpt by one of the participants:

”In Mexico when somebody talks about Canada, we know that they speak French and English but when we arrive here we know French is more of community. We think in Mexico everybody speaks French. Why? Because you promote country like that. When you go to language course (settlement courses – AG.), you say in Canada we speak two languages. So this is the image you give outside which is wrong.”

As newcomers further integrate into Albertan society, they attempt to reconcile conflicting views on Canada as a bilingual country and Alberta as a monolingual province and construct their own understanding of bilingualism as a complex social and ideological phenomenon, exhibited and sustained by individuals and groups (Heller 1–24).

4.2 Language Integration and Multiculturalism – Legal and Practical Dimensions

Cultural familiarity is an important factor when it comes to communication in the wider society. However, according to immigrants, language itself does not lead to integration; rather it enables and facilitates the integrational process. Furthermore, such integration is not possible without considering both recent immigrants’ and native-born Canadians’ willingness to engage with each other. As a participant described one of his experiences:

A: “When I was working, I had a friend. He’s from the same country as me. I know one lady, she says that she is native. She’s not native, but her grandfather is native. So, she says, ‘I’m also native.’ She asked my friend, ‘Are you Canadian?’ He said, ‘Yes. When I get already my citizenship, I’m Canadian.’ She said to him, ‘You’re still not Canadian.’ She said, ‘You’re still African, not the Canadian.’ So he said to her, ‘If my son is born here, he’s not Canadian?’ He asked this question. She said, ‘Yes, he still African, not Canadian.” But he said, ‘He’s Canadian.’
B: “Why do you think people think like this?”
A: “I think they think Canada is for themselves. I think that’s a problem. There is some discrimination.”
B: “Do you agree with your friends who says even if you’re not born here, you can still be Canadian?”
A: “Yes. He’s right. I think government treats everybody the same but people have problems.”

Therefore, while the macro-level policy of multiculturalism in theory demonstrates the commitment of the government to maintain the multicultural nature of the society, often it is not able to connect to and influence local practices. Integration is, thus, a dialogical process and practice, and its effectiveness will depend on both host and immigrant communities (Bourhis et al. 44).

4.3 Connecting Language Integration and Employment

As we have demonstrated so far, immigrants see integration dialectically and dialogically and bring into discussion a complexity of contributing socio-political and socio-cultural factors that are in constant interplay with each other. Throughout their perceptions, experiences and practices, immigrants attempt to deconstruct meanings of what is important for the country and what is important for them. However, as important as bilingualism and multiculturalism are at the macro-level, it is immigrants’ life experiences at the micro-level that matter the most.

While immigrants believe that improving language proficiency level can facilitate their settlement and help engage more effectively in Canadian society, they cannot fully achieve successful and desirable integration as long as their professional and educational credentials are not recognized, and they are not employed in their areas of expertise. In addition, foreign credential recognition seems to be a lengthy and complicated process that does not necessarily result in successful recognition of applicants’ foreign credentials. One of the study participants mentions:

“We came here as high-skilled immigrants; there is a marking system based on which they rate us and give visa, but after coming here, you don’t have that opportunity; if they need high-skilled people, they should use them; otherwise, it is not good for the country or the person who is coming here…they have given a lot but that should improve….”

The quote above is representative of the concerns of the majority of the study participants, who, despite having post-secondary degrees and extensive professional experience, have not been successful in finding jobs related to their fields of study and expertise. Frequently, they expressed concern that their professional experiences are not taken into account and maintained that most employers only consider Canadian experience to be professional experience.

Such findings echo the concerns regarding barriers to credential recognition and employment documented in other research studies on immigrants’ integration. The Business Council of British Colombia (Labour Market Needs) refers to Canada’s current migration policy as one focusing on “skilled, educated and adaptable” migrants that bring qualities that are beneficial for settlement in the country (50). However, it addresses the existing gap between the needs of the labor market and the migrants’ employment in the market due to a number of factors including the recognition of foreign credentials. It states that “realistically, a fully integrated Canadian qualifications recognition system is a near impossibility in the short term, due to the wide range of provincial responsibility and authority in much of education, training, and professional” (ibid. 72). Guo and Andersson acknowledge the “devaluation and denigration” of the prior education and work experience of professional immigrants to Canada (17). Similarly, non-recognition of foreign credentials and work experience are mentioned among the barriers to newcomers’ integration into Canadian society by Wayland (12–13). Moreover, Zikic et al. maintain that refugees and female migrants face more difficulties in having their credentials evaluated and accepted (1). The Business Council of British Colombia suggests that “Canada’s immigration system could function more effectively and rapidly: to help employees have better access to the overseas talent in the Skilled Worker category; to serve the settlement goals of the immigration program; and to clarify the futures of the migrants in the queue” (Labour Market Needs 69).

On many occasions, there is a conflict between what immigrants aspired to accomplish in Canada prior to immigration and what they experience after their arrival. One of the interviewees maintains: “…the rule might be there, but I don’t know why it is so difficult… it seems you have to drop your career and profession and change your career; then you ask: why they said that they need your specialty when they don’t employ me in my specialty when I come here?”

Such confusion is often caused by the specific immigrant application criteria, which includes prior educational and professional experiences in determining immigrants’ eligibility for selection. Immigrants tend to believe that such assessment means that they will be able to apply for jobs in their professions and be employed without being required to have their credentials recognized. Others may not be fully aware of the processes of foreign credential recognition and the complexities that might be inherent in them. The problem is more understandable when considering that applicants in the Skilled Worker category do not need to have their credentials assessed prior to submitting an application (Labour Market Needs 56).

5 Conclusion: A Gap between the Policies and Immigration Experiences

The studies done on immigration and integration into Canadian society alongside the findings of the present study suggest that pre-arrival perceptions regarding professional accreditation do not necessarily correlate with their post-arrival experiences. The study shows that the migrants believe that incorrect perceptions are due to the misleading discourse that fails to portray the realities of professional employment in Canada. Referring to the application process as well as textual evidence, newcomers presume the acknowledgement of their professional credentials and previous experience in advance and fail to comprehend why the government is hesitant to recognize them and provide equivalent job opportunities upon arrival.

Considering the multilayered nature of LPP, it seems that the policies set at the macro-level do not correlate with those related to the policy execution. Investigating the micro-level realities of policy implementation attempts indicates a gap between what has been planned at the macro level, executed at the meso level and experienced by immigrants at the micro level.

However, looking into the governmental discourse—specifically at the documents at Citizenship and Immigration Canada—and investigating the policy discourse at the macro-level make it even clearer that the problems migrants are facing are indeed acknowledged and addressed by the Government of Canada. The Foreign Credentials Referral Office mentions education, work experience, knowledge of English and/or French among the criteria for accepting permanent residents to Canada. (“Why Credential Recognition Matters”). Furthermore, it continues that “qualifying to immigrate to Canada as a skilled worker does not mean that your educational credentials and work experience will be recognized or that you will be qualified to work in a particular occupation.” It also maintains that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the selection criteria and the specific job vacancies. In other words, the selection criteria do not mean that the qualifications of migrants will be “accepted or approved by any licensing or regulatory body in Canada.” To sum up, “qualifying to immigrate to Canada, having your educational credentials recognized, qualifying to work in a particular occupation and finding employment are separate issues” (“Why Credential Recognition Matters” 2). However, this clarification has little impact on eliminating the ambiguity surrounding the discourse on professional accreditation.

It appears, however, that Citizenship and Immigration Canada is starting to recognize the problems of the point-based immigrant selection system (Federal Skilled Worker Program) that emphasizes previous work experience (Evaluation of the Federal Skilled Worker Program 1–12). Since 2010, it has been involved in a number of consultations with stakeholders regarding the effectiveness of awarding too many points for previous work experience, as “… foreign work experience is a weak predictor of success in the Canadian labour market” (“Part 2: Proposed Changes to the Federal Skilled Worker Program”). It is yet to be seen what impact the changes in assessment of immigrants’ professional credentials might have on the processes of integration. Little is likely to change as long as the official rhetoric on integration, both linguistic and professional, does not consider the interpretation of this rhetoric at the ground level.

For the time being, while the macro-discourse has addressed the credential recognition and work experience issues either explicitly or implicitly, the newcomers seem to misinterpret the official discourse on professional integration. As a result, immigrants do not seem to have a clear understanding of the processes that they might need to go through to have their credentials approved and accepted prior to their arrival to Canada.

The incompatibility between the selection criteria and credential recognition and employment opportunities has made the newcomers wonder why their foreign credentials, education and work experience are included in the selection process when they are not practically recognized by the authorities. Based on the proposed theoretical framework of LPP, there appears to be a discrepancy between the intended, constructed and perceived discourse on social, economic and most importantly, professional integration.

6 Recommendations

We believe that integration through language learning cannot be viewed without taking other essential elements of integration into account, one of which is professional integration. Therefore, it is crucial to:

  • Construct, develop and implement a clearer, more coherent and realistic policy that would be perceived appropriately at the individual level;
  • Familiarize and educate newcomers and potential immigrants about the realistic expectations regarding their professional integration (pre-settlement workshops, information sessions, etc.);
  • If necessary, provide the opportunity for immigrants to gain Canadian experience in their areas of specialization through internship, apprenticeship, practicum, volunteering etc.

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