The mother tongue

Newcomers encounter many obstacles in Halifax. Among the biggest is the language barrier

When you immigrate to Halifax, one of the first expectations you encounter is that you speak English, or you’re learning it as quickly as possible.

As Rita Mae Brown, the American feminist writer says, “Language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, makes it even more explicit. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

But learning a new language poses different problems to different people. It seems that some learn fast, but for some others, it’s a struggle. Somim Park (name changed) is an immigrant who cannot speak English fluently even after coming to Canada from South Korea 3.5 years ago.

“I’m very shy and don’t interact with people easily,” she says. “ For the first two years I didn’t even want to come out of the house. My only contact then was the landlady who took me and my husband in as paying guests. She tried to teach me the basic spoken English, but for me learning it was very difficult.”

The language barrier isolated her.

“I longed to speak my mother tongue,” she recalls. “I missed my family. I didn’t understand most of what people around me were saying. I had to study their facial expressions and gestures to understand whether they were being friendly or hostile. Whenever I thought of learning English, I felt miserable and wanted to go back to my homeland.”

Park has a work visa, but finding work is hard.

“I knew very few English words and didn’t know how to make proper sentences,” she explains. “With such poor knowledge of the language, getting a job was almost impossible. So, I sold small curios and home decorations at the farmers market. Then I sold apples and strawberries from a temporary roadside fruit stall. I also worked as house help sometimes.”

In South Korea, she was a nurse. “I would like to do the same work here in Canada,” she says. “For this, I have to improve my English. ISANS (Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia) conducts regular classes in nursing for immigrants. I hope to take these classes some day.”

To improve her English, Park listens carefully to her colleagues when they speak to her, and reads simple books. She used to take English classes through Zoom from the Central Library in Halifax. She’s most comfortable in the company of other immigrants because she can understand their conversation better and they are aware of her problems expressing herself in English.

“My biggest problem is speaking,” she says. “I’m not sure which words to use. People often misunderstand me or become offended when I speak to them. When I take a long time to answer their questions, they lose interest in me and go away. All this makes me very sad.”

Park believes getting the permanent residency status will help her in her present situation. It will open up new avenues for her and maybe better job opportunities.

About her life in Canada, she says, “I like it very much here. People are friendly, child care is good, and life in general is less stressful. I hope to live here for a long time and raise a family.”

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