Navigate & Integrate: The Role of Language
By: Rayan Batlouni & Zahira Tasabehji - ENGAG3D at the Syrian Canadian Foundation
Speaking the language of the country you live in is an essential step for integrating into that country. The need for language support programs in a country like Canada is tremendous, where in 2021, there were more than 8 million immigrants with permanent residency status. Newcomers to Canada need language to navigate the system, get better job opportunities, access resources and services, communicate and build social networks, and take part in political life. Language support is therefore one of the key drivers of economic and social integration into Canadian society.
The Syrian Canadian Foundation (SCF) has been working with newcomers since 2016 to support them in developing their language skills. “Engag3D: Digital, Differentiated, Diverse” is one of SCF’s current research programs studying the effects of technology on English language training for newcomers. This program utilizes virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to explore how newcomers can improve their English language skills in a quick and engaging way so they can accelerate their integration into their new home, Canada.
The major advantage of using VR in class is its ability to block auditory and visual distractions in the classrooms. This will help students deeply connect with the material and be immersed with what they are learning. For example, when students are deeply immersed in VR, they will not be looking at the clock to see how much time is left before lunch break. It has been proven that when students are directly immersed with what they are learning, they will be able to make real world connections between the subject and their personal lives. This will lead to a deeper level of processing of the material which will provide a more successful learning experience.
Since this is a research program, it is key that the English training curriculum used is adaptable to the different teaching models (Standard, VR and AI English language classes). Existing curricula often focus on grammar and language rules, and require plenty of reading and writing. This is why we started with empathetic interviews with newcomers and previous clients to better understand their needs. The interviews included demographic questions about participants’ backgrounds, challenges, and language needs related to their use of the English language. Many of the participants expressed the importance of learning English in order to accelerate their integration. One participant said, “I live in a country where the primary language is English, it is important to speak the language,” while another expressed, “I don’t want to feel left out, I want to know what’s happening around me.” “If I was fluent in English, I would feel I am part of the community and I would use my language skills to work or volunteer and would be able to give back to the community, ”another interviewee expressed.
All participants expressed that they want to develop their English-speaking skills so they can navigate the new system in Canada. “I like conversations and enjoy speaking, because they allow you to feel more confident and fluent,” mentioned one of the interviewees. Visiting the doctor (something that most people do frequently) was another example highlighted in the interviews as being intimidating for a newcomer with limited English language skills. “A lot of doctors don’t speak Arabic, so it’s hard to communicate,” one participant expressed. Newcomers need English speaking skills to deal with practical matters of their everyday lives as one of the interviewees mentioned: “Language is life. If you want to drink water, you need to speak English, it’s as important. I use it for shopping, transportation, to interact with neighbours and friends, at the doctor’s and the pharmacist, etc.”
It was clear to us that the curriculum needs to address both cultural and functional aspects of living in Canada to equip newcomers with the tools they need to maneuver their everyday lives. From these interviews, we started building the curriculum with this question in mind: “How might we help newcomers navigate and integrate into the new system in Canada through language?” This is how we started addressing various topics like Hobbies and Interests, Canadian Culture, Travel and Tourism, Banking and Finances, Physical and Mental Health and Employment skills, such as writing resumes and conducting job interviews. These topics are of functional use for newcomers and are essential to navigate this new system. For example, in the Physical and Mental Health theme, students are gaining general information about the healthcare system in Canada while practicing booking appointments with doctors.
The teacher takes less the role of an instructor and more the role of a facilitator, stepping in to offer insight and move the discussion along. In each lesson, learners get to apply what they have learned and practice them in a guided activity.
Students in the VR class apply their learning within the VR environment, while those in the standard class, apply it in a standard classroom setting. The different methods utilized will be compared to measure their effectiveness as part of the larger study. Real learning happens within those learning activities as students get to apply their newly acquired knowledge, practice new vocabulary, and connect with others in an authentic setting.
Our primary goal is to help improve the services and experience of newcomers to Canada so their integration into society is quicker, smoother, and easier. We acknowledge that it is not an easy process and this is why Engag3D is not like any traditional English program. It provides newcomers with the opportunity to improve their language skills in a fun and engaging way, practice real-life scenarios, form connections, and be part of a bigger community.
Rayan Batlouni Program Manager - Engag3D Research Program - Syrian Canadian Foundation
Zahira Tasabehji Program Coordinator - Engag3D Research Program - Syrian Canadian Foundation