Integration on the tip of your tongue

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By Silvana Fonsêca

From it you can determine a region, origin, economic, social or even cultural development of a population. Language allows us to achieve, trade, and get to know things. What can we say then about its importance in the integration of an immigrant?

Would learning the language be a determining factor for integration in a new country? Yes. But, learning the language alone is not enough. Take Michele Aguiar, who immigrated to Canada two years ago. She said that, in the beginning, even though she spoke English, she felt like a fish out of water when speaking with colleagues. “Learning the language is fundamental, but it’s not always enough when trying to integrate. This is because language is a living part of the culture and it is always changing according to the story and social context. If the immigrant does not know at least a little of the local reality, even little day-to-day things will be complicated”, says Michele.

If the thought of social exclusion is discouraging, even more challenging are the difficulties of learning a language as an adult. Studying becomes secondary to the ever present concerns of the finances-home-work triad. Another challenging factor is the confusion that can stem from being obliged to learn the language. “The immigration process is already highly stressful and when a person has to learn a language that is different from their own, and knowing that this is crucial to conquer this new country that they are adopting, this obligation can turn into a road block for all this new information”, states Michele.

But for those who are able to overcome the obstacles, studying a new language can be extremely enriching and gratifying. “When you visit a city outside your country without knowing the language and when you return the second time, you discover how much you missed out on during your first visit. Imagine an immigration situation!” points out Cínthia Low, a Brazilian, who immigrated to Canada two and a half years ago. “Learning a language is living via a culture, a society. It is like opening up a new world before our eyes”, she affirms.

When she arrived, Cínthia also found herself facing a different culture, but, she used her knowledge of the language to fill any gaps. “I would ask ‘what is this’ all the time, and I was afraid that I was becoming annoying! But my work colleagues found it very funny and loved explaining the significance of words or expressions that I didn’t know”, she says.

On a personal level, when we try to learn the language of a country that has received us, we find ourselves more open to discovering this new culture. It is this interest that will open the doors for our socialization. On a more professional note, the fact that we know other languages shows our capacity for adaptation, how easy it is to learn, to go beyond in our search for knowledge.

According to the Portuguese Language professor, Ricardo Sternberg, from the University of Toronto, there are cases where language is not a determining factor when getting a job, but, in a country as receptive as Canada, where the immigrant has access to everything, it would almost be an obligation to learn English (and in some areas, French) to facilitate not just integration but also to enter the work market, and to avoid “ghettoization”. “Canada is a very open country that always seeks to stimulate cultural communities. However, if the immigrant shies away from this, he runs the risk of isolation”, he explains. For the professor, communication is a primal activity in a person’s life, so, learning and speaking, besides enriching us, makes us social beings.

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De buqui is ón de teibou”!

Many times learning a language involves the need to “clean up the accent”. “Some people have such a strong accent that this ends up hindering communication. This is not about erasing a cultural characteristic, it is about transmitting a message more clearly”, affirms Ricardo Sternberg. The number of courses to reduce an accent has been rising and some are even taking place on the Internet. Some of the main suggestions are to: speak slowly and articulate, pay attention to the musicality of each language, read out loud and finally, pay attention to a native speaker’s (of the language you are learning) mouth movement and intonation.

Por Silvana Fonsêca