The first item on Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst’s daily calendar reflects the findings of recent Statistics Canada census data on languages spoken and used across Canada.
Decter Hirst starts her day at city hall with Spanish lessons she pays for out of her own pocket, before she does anything else.
"When I was running for election in 2010, I came across many doorsteps where the understanding of English was not strong enough for me to explain I was running to be the mayor and was looking for support," Decter Hirst said.
"Regardless of whether a resident of Brandon is a Canadian citizen and is voting, I think it’s my responsibility to represent all residents of the city whether they speak English or not. That’s what motivated me to study Spanish."
The fact Decter Hirst decided to learn Spanish was no accident. Of the 45,335 people that reported what their mother tongue was, 1,915 Brandonites said Spanish was their first language, and 1,720 said Spanish is the language they use at home. Decter Hirst said she has used her limited abilities in Spanish to address basic civic issues such as waste management with area residents that aren’t comfortable doing that in English, and recently has used her personal holiday time to go to Costa Rica so she could develop her language skills in a predominantly Spanish-speaking country.
English remains the dominant language in Brandon, with 37,675 calling it their mother tongue and 40,222 saying it’s the language they use at home. However, the census findings show Canada’s other official language, French, has an insignificant presence in the city compared to its national status, with 600 people calling it their mother tongue and only 135 using French as the first language at home.
That, when compared to the 1,230 people who call the languages of China, which include Mandarin and Cantonese, their mother tongue, the 685 saying Ukrainian is their mother tongue and the 685 that called German their first language shows not only a cultural diversity for the city, but the challenges faced by the Brandon School Division’s English as an Additional Language programs.
"We are a bilingual province and those languages are English and French," said Greg Malazdrewicz, the assistant superintendent of the Brandon School Division. "Those are the programming strands in the system. When we talk about the language groups, the French-immersion group are predominantly an English-language group studying French. That’s part of the difference."
Students in the Brandon School Division have come from as many as 26 countries, and have between 15 and 20 different mother tongues. Malazdrewicz said as many as one-quarter to one-third of the English as an Additional Language students come from Spanish-speaking families. When those speaking Chinese languages are combined with their Spanish-speaking colleagues, their numbers represent half of the EAL students in Brandon.
And while the number of students speaking Spanish and Chinese languages is on the rise, so is the number of German-speaking students, largely coming in from rural communities. But students speaking other languages also need support as they learn English.
"It is tough in that there aren’t a lot of bilingual supports where we can refer to a lot of interpreters in the community," Malazdrewicz said.
That said, Malazdrewicz said it is still possible to provide effective English language skills, because there are basic pieces students can recognize.
"Language acquisition is consistent whether you are trying to learn English or French or something else," Malazdrewicz said. "A lot of it is a model of teaching that puts the students in a context where their entire world is visually cued to present both languages. A door may be labelled a door in English, but will also be labeled a door in French or Spanish. Students are able to pick up the fundamentals."
Malazdrewicz said because the students already have language skills in another language, attaching English-language equivalents to the words they already know makes the overall goal of ensuring the student is literate in English easier.
The census results provided few surprises to the city’s economic development officer, Sandy Trudel, as it "solidifies what we’ve been living day-to-day."
"We have been encountering this as a community and what it has done is provide statistical validation to the projections and the changes we have seen in our community. We are out working with businesses or even trying to recruit people to live here."
Trudel said a culturally diverse Brandon has made that job easier, and leads to retaining the people that do move to the Wheat City.
"You always hope to have a workforce that is reflective of your community, but that happens over time," Trudel said. "You are going to see that as people settle into a community and acquire a level of language proficiency to allow them to be successful that they are going to be integrated into every workplace in the community."
With that integration comes an increasing appreciation for the cultures and languages represented by the people moving into the community. Malazdrewicz said that while students whose first language is not English learn the language used by most residents, they are also able to teach the locals about their language and culture. And others, such as Decter Hirst, take steps to learn other languages in order to communicate with their fellow residents.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 25, 2012