Chapter 9: Newcomer Family Settlement in Canada


Language is an important element in the settlement journey for immigrants in Canada because it helps in significant aspects of their lives, such as securing employment, navigating systems, forming connections, and fostering a sense of belonging to a new culture. In this section, we will explore the significance of language for new immigrant families and examine the integral role played by settlement workers in facilitating language acquisition for immigrants.

Participants in a professional training workshop classroom smiling.
Learning to navigate a new language is essential for newcomers to Canada.

Settlement workers have resources that can aid in the integration of immigrant families. They can help newcomers register for courses designed to facilitate better communication and help families adapt. These courses range from introductory English classes to advanced courses that teach Canadian culture for both social and professional settings.

Settlement workers can help families involved in practical matters such as negotiating with landlords or interfacing with school systems. They are often multilingual, allowing for a more personalized and effective support structure. This not only helps settlement workers build immediate trust with the families, but also facilitates clearer communication suited to individual family needs.

Immigrating to a new country involves many changes, the biggest of which is learning how to navigate using a new language. This requires not only learning a new grammar and vocabulary, but also how to use the language in every aspect of the new society. One of the most important uses of language is in interactions with other people. The ability to interact smoothly and effectively with people is often known as a “soft skill.” Some examples of how soft skills can be used are given below, but they also involve subtlety because they often depend on a person’s knowledge of the local culture.

In Kim (2020), newcomers reported that speaking their native language in the workplace was a way to feel a sense of belonging and relieve stress. In the excerpts below, nurses from the Philippines working in Canada share their experiences:

In Kim (2020), some internationally educated nurses (IENs) had to adapt to slang and colloquialisms in the workplace, which included understanding idioms. Despite being educated in English in their home countries and having excellent English skills, the IENs found some patients’ use of idioms and euphemisms unfamiliar. Idioms are shared within language communities, and using them can create a sense of belonging. However, when someone doesn’t understand an idiom, it can mark them as an outsider. For example, Emma shared an experience with a male resident who said, “I need to go to the john.” Not familiar with this slang term for toilet, Emma responded, “Who’s John?” She later expressed feeling embarrassed, stating, “It’s something they really know about. As an immigrant, as a new person here, I don’t know what a ‘john’ is. I’m supposed to know a lot of things, and then I don’t know what a ‘john’ is.”

This interaction had a negative impact on Emma because she felt she should have understood what the resident meant. Unfortunately, she misunderstood the resident, thinking he was asking to see someone named John. Her response may have taken the resident off guard because he was expecting assistance to go to the bathroom. Emma recounted that the resident looked at her from head to toe with an expression that seemed to ask, “Where are you from?” This reaction intensified Emma’s sense of being an outsider. She further positioned herself as an outsider when she explained to him that she was an immigrant.

Although Emma admitted that the encounter with her resident was embarrassing, she expressed, “For me, as I go along with my own journey of learning, I try to grab each piece and make sure I can express myself more freely.” She views the experience of not understanding the euphemism “I need to go to the john” and similar situations as positive learning opportunities.

Other IENs participating in the same doctoral study shared that speaking in their own languages was natural and “automatic” when interacting with colleagues at work. Fran, for example, emphasized that she can convey her feelings more effectively in her native language, and compared to English, the expressions in her language are more vibrant. She elaborated, “You don’t feel like you’re in a foreign land. You feel like you’re in your neighbourhood.” When communicating in English at work with her Filipino colleagues, Fran expressed a sense of being a professional following workplace rules in Canada. She provided examples of words and expressions in her language that carry deeper emotional connections for her than their English counterparts. Fran highlighted terms like kapatid and sis, emphasizing their deep emotional connections to Filipinos: “We call each other kapatid or sis. It’s deeper because we say kapatid back home. It’s like you’re part of the family. It’s not just the expression of sis or ‘sister.'”

Small talk is an important aspect of workplace interactions and plays a role in establishing rapport among colleagues (Bartel, 2018). Although pre-employment workshops often provide guidance on appropriate topics for small talk, not all attempts at engaging in it have positive outcomes outside the classroom. Gwen shared an incident where she used an incorrect word during an interaction she had with a colleague. Gwen saw a colleague removing her food from the staff fridge. The colleague made a comment, and Gwen responded, “Is it yours?” Her intention was to confirm that she had heard the colleague, but instead, the colleague mistook Gwen’s response as an accusation of stealing. Gwen explained:

But she made it a big deal. She said, “What do you mean? You’re questioning me that this is my stuff.” [I said,] “No, I didn’t mean it that way … . I’m not accusing you of doing anything. So if you are hurt, I’m sorry. I’m not thinking negatively of you. It’s maybe my choice of words or the way you understood what I said.”

Similarly, initiating small talk with colleagues involves understanding how to break into a social conversation. For example, when Dana began working as a nurse in Canada, she initially lacked confidence in her ability to engage with colleagues socially in English. She explained: “Culture, you know. I was not really socializing—like when they’re talking, there were things that I didn’t know about at that time. English is not my first language so I would feel hesitant to mingle with them.”

People often focus on what is involved in successful communication and how to achieve it. Much can be learned by analyzing communication breakdowns. Gwen’s account of her conversation with her colleague concerning the contents of the fridge serves as an illustration. Communication breakdowns are accompanied by genuine feelings of frustration and disappointment when individuals perceive that the people skills needed to deal with things are missing. A suggestion to instructors who teach and develop soft skills teaching materials is to focus on teaching students how to be with people in an authentic way, which may be more meaningful and could be applied to a wider range of possible interactions and situations in the workplace instead of teaching students “the right thing to say” (Hartrick, 1997, p. 526).

In summary, language profoundly impacts immigrants’ settlement in Canada, influencing employment, connections, and a sense of belonging. Through the experiences of internationally educated nurses, we can see the complexities immigrants navigate, from workplace nuances to cultural subtleties. Emphasizing genuine interpersonal connections over mere language proficiency is essential for effective integration and support in their new environment.


Interactive Activity 3

Complete the multiple-choice quiz.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do language barriers impact family life and broader life goals?
  2. What specific services can settlement workers offer to break down language barriers?
  3. Discuss the importance of language for fostering a sense of belonging to a new culture or in the workplace. In your experience, where have newcomers found places that make them feel they truly belong?
  4. In what ways do you believe the multilingual skills of settlement workers contribute to building trust and enhancing communication for families in the settlement process?

Learning Activity 4: Reading

Read the CBC News article about translator kids, then answer the discussion question below:.

  1. What is a “translator kid”?
  2. What are the implications of relying on young family members as translators for official matters? How might it affect the children and their role within the family?
  3. In your opinion, how can schools and local communities better support newcomer families and reduce the need for young children to act as translators in important situations?
Image Credit

Faculty workshop professional training by PickPik, Public domain


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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