Language as a Means and Not as a Goal Itself: Integration of Immigrant Youth in Montreal
By Vera Polouvytnova
Understanding the process of integration for immigrant youth and the
factors at play will allow the parents and the community to support the young
adults better and ensure their successful integration into the host society.
Image source: Radical Graphics
Starting from the late 1960s, during the Quiet Revolution, the Francophone population fought back for its power and once regained, they established French as the public and official language by passing Bill 101 in 1977, which obliged all public communication to be in French and forced the children of immigrants to attend French public schools (Steinbach, "Eux autres versus nous autres"). As Dawn Allen summarizes the need for such measure in her report "Who's in Who's out? Language and the integration of new immigrant youth in Quebec", she also notes that the Quebec French language population is a minority in North America.
The province relies on immigration because of an aging population and a declining birth rate. It then becomes very challenging to balance multicultural acceptance and protection of the French language in an English dominated greater context (Allen).
It is interesting to note that after the passing of the Bill, not only were the immigrant children being raised in francophone schools but also the profile of the immigrants changed. Between 1971 and 2001, the percentage of French only speaking immigrants increased from 14.8% to 25.4% while that of English only speaking immigrants decreased from 38.9% to 15.9% (Vincent, 4).
Immigrants who spoke French in their host country made up the majority of immigrants coming to Quebec and the largest group came from Africa between the years of 1999 and 2008 (MICC). Based on the report by Nicole Lapierre Vincent, "L'intégration Linguistique au Québec," Bill 101 seems to have good results. French has become the dominate language in public relations and although its protection is still necessary, its presence and strength are deemed to be established (Lapierre).
When coming to Quebec, seventy-seven percent of the immigrants choose to settle in Montreal (MICC). They arrive in the middle of a conflict of the French language protection and the international English dominance. For young adults in Montreal, it is essential to learn French in order to finish their education, and they will also need to master English to ensure future career options.
A study by Beaulieu of the Bill 101 generation shows promising statistics for the French language. He reports that 92% of the children grown up after the passing of the Bill have a positive attitude towards French and are proud to speak it (Lapierre). Also, he mentions that the above-mentioned generation "has adopted Quebec, its language and its culture" (qtd. in Vincent, 30).
Integration Issues Facing Immigrant Youth Today
Learning a new language is easier when done at a younger age and teenagers are considered to be at the perfect age to acquire this skill. They are capable to learn a language faster and master it erasing the traces of their original accent. But when young adults immigrate they are not only faced with the need to integrate linguistically but also academically, culturally and socially during the time when they are just learning to define their identity. The pressure from their peers to fit in and be like everybody else conflicts with their previous identity and makes their integration quite complex.
Studies based on interviews with immigrant youth and Quebeckers show that the experience of integration is not so positive. Dawn Allen in her publication analyses specifically the segregation of immigrant youth. First, she quotes the Ministry of Education on that integration needs to be a two-way process: immigrants need to learn the host language and cultural norms, while the society needs to be open to cultural diversity. Yet, the school system reflects only a one-way approach.
The Accueil System
In most schools in Montreal, immigrant youth upon their arrival are segregated in accueil classes, where they are supposed to learn French and the Quebec culture before being integrated into normal classes. Allen explains that the students are grouped loosely according to their age and language skill (in one group the age ranged from 13 to 18) and they have all of their classes together including physical education. They are completely isolated and French language acquisition is seen as a prerequisite for integration into the greater school community. She reports that the students perceived French as a barrier and the accueil classes as an obstacle. Students felt isolated because they were focused on pure language learning and did not participate in the community to a point that some became hostile towards the host language (Allen).
The theme of isolation is also reflected in other studies. Oymoon in her thesis on "The Experiences of Chinese Immigrant Students in Quebec Schools" mentions that the students, in this case of Hong Kong origin, felt demoralized, incapable to communicate, and lost their sense of identity. Learning French for the Asian students is especially difficult because of its linguistic distance from their heritage language. Asian students grow up learning English and learn to value it as the international language and essential for future career success. This perception is important when they start to learn French because it effects their motivation.
Many Asian students felt resistant to French because they were forced to learn it. Many students who participated in her study switched to English-speaking colleges as soon as they could and sadly the inability to learn well French or English led them to alter their career dreams, opting for accounting or engineering fields instead of the ones they would have preferred (Oymoon).
Social Segregation of Immigrant Youth
In Marilyn Steinbach's study, "Quand je sors d'accueil: linguistic integration of immigrant adolescents in Quebec secondary schools," she reports, based on immigrant students' interviews, that social segregation is the biggest obstacle for the youth to integrate.
Newcomer students felt that academic integration was less problematic than social integration at school, because while they could work on language learning and pedagogical differences, they felt powerless in the face of societal attitudes, biased texts and the lack of polyethnic awareness among teachers (Steinbach 97).
Although her study was done outside of Montreal, where the immigration population density is much lower, the reflections could be comparable to Montreal. In the study, many students talked about conflicts between the immigrants and the Quebeckers, there were no conflicts, however, between the immigrants themselves. Mentioned examples of hostility included that the newcomers were called names and pushed around; they were told to go back to their country and that they were using their [host country students'] money.
The immigrant students expressed a desire to form friendships with the Quebeckers but had no opportunity to socialize with them. They also found it difficult to connect because the Quebeckers wanted to be amongst themselves and did not have the patience to try to understand the immigrants. One newcomer student said that a Quebecker student just walked away from him while in the middle of the sentence because he didn't understand what the other one was trying to say.
Naturally, many immigrant students felt incapable to communicate with the native students and believed that they will only be able to do so once they are completely fluent in French. Steinbach also provides a testimony of an Eastern European student who was able to clarify the situation. This student was accepted both in the Quebecker population and among the immigrant students. She said that it were the differences in values, religion and culture that separated the two groups.
A major cultural difference was that of individualistic or communal mentality. Her culture was similar to that of Quebec and she did not come from an underdeveloped country. The student also believed that other immigrants do not make enough effort and adopt an attitude that the Quebeckers have to help them. Her more individualistic approach led her to believe that if she wants or needs something it is her responsibility to obtain it (Steinbach, "Quand je sors d'accueil").
Integration should be a two-way process, therefore it is important to consider the experience of the students from Quebec. In the second part of the study of Marily Steinbach "Eux Autres versus nous autres: adolescent students' views on the integration of newcomers," she interviews students from Quebec in groups of five to facilitate the expression of their opinions without censorship. The interviewed students expressed fear that the French language will become overpowered and they would become a minority; they were intimidated by the immigrants who were different in the way they dress, act and perceive space between themselves and the other students (the Quebeckers perceived the immigrants to be uncomfortably close). The interviewed students expressed that they did not want the immigrants to speak their heritage language; they said that it made them uncomfortable because they did not understand it.
The Quebeckers believed that the immigrants should adopt their culture and that there were too many foreigners in the school, although they made up only 12% of the school population (Steinbach, "Eux Autres versus nous autres"). The hostility of the Quebec society towards immigrants is also reflected in the "Seeking Common Ground: Quebeckers speak out," a report published by the Quebec government to conduct a survey of societal attitudes towards reasonable accommodation. It reflects that the attitude is hostile towards accommodating the needs the immigrants especially when concerned with religion. Some French Canadians believe that ethnic minorities are taking advantage of the host country and are not adopting the its societal values and institutions (Quebec).
Strategies for Immigrant Youth Assimilation
Although integration is a two-directional process, the consequences are most felt by the immigrants and they depend on it for their survival in the new country. Because immigrants cannot force the host to be welcoming they have to adapt themselves. In one Norwegian study, David Lackland Sam tested four acculturation strategies proposed by Berry on adolescent immigrants. The four strategies were assimilation (limiting integration to only that with the host country members and abandoning heritage culture), separation (strict adherence to heritage culture), integration (balancing host and heritage cultures) and marginalization (rejection of both heritage and host cultures). Sam studied how these strategies affected the mental health of the youth and he found that the healthiest strategy is that of integration. He also examined the importance of group identity among immigrants and its effect on their self-esteem (Sam). Because adolescent immigrants are in the process of forming their identity, it is important for them to have a sense of belonging.
Maintaining the heritage culture is sometimes overlooked because of the immediate need to integrate and learn the host language, but it allows the youth to maintain a close connection with their family and cultural community. When they are not accepted at school, it is important to have an identity, which will set these youths apart in the future and be seen more as an advantage than a hindering difference that it was at the beginning. Sam reported in his study that the separation strategy in which the participants strictly kept to their own culture resulted in the highest self-esteem (Sam).
Language also implies culture. For adolescents adopting news cultures, especially in Montreal where both English and French cultures need to be learned, this could cause an identity crisis. They may become split between their roots, which they cannot deny, and the need to adapt to a new culture. In their article "Language Practices in Trilingual Youth in Two Canadian Cities," Diane Dagenais and Patricia Lamarre look at how trilingual youth perceive their identity. "Some youth described their identity as being ripped apart in many different directions and being left with something that doesn't exist" (Dagenais 69). But others view it as capital and almost as a passport that will open many opportunities for them. Some youth described their identity as hybrid, which allowed them to move among many societal networks and adopt to many different contexts. Some students describe their identity as beyond belonging to one culture but being transnational and citizens of the world (Dagenais).
Being multilingual also raises the question of competency. An immigrant student being excellent in his academics may not continue to be so in a new language. Many immigrants feel incompetent because they do not master the host language to the same degree as their native one. A study done in Israel with polyglot youth by Frieda Nassim-Amitai and Elite Olshitain make an important distinction between the multilingual and monolingual language perspectives. Multilingual youth that participated in the study grew up speaking four languages. They perceived it normal and had a specific use for each one. Their native language was used in the family, Hebrew at school, Arab for religious purposes and English to ensure future career perspectives. The difference with a monolingual perspective of a person who grew up speaking one language is that these youths did not master all four languages to the same extent but only used them as was required (Nissim-Amitai). This perspective could take a lot of pressure off the immigrants. It is absurd to see immigrant youth feeling inadequate and inferior when they do not master French, which is their second and in many cases third, forth or even fifth language.
Immigrant youth are under a lot of pressure. They are in the midst of forming their personality and building a blueprint for their future. It is a time when they need support the most but sadly many immigrant youth do not receive it. The parents, being immigrants themselves, are often not able to offer help with the schoolwork. Many immigrant parents are learning the language themselves and are marginalized into poverty because of the low professional immigrant employment rate. Many work doing unskilled jobs even when they are licensed professionals in their own countries. It is also difficult for the immigrant youth to seek help because they are isolated at school and are not accepted into the circle of Quebecker youth.
Despite the Government's efforts to recruit immigrants to reverse the demographic decline, they themselves recognize that the Quebec society is not welcoming towards the immigrants. A project funded by the government to highlight how much the immigrants are contributing to the society called "toutes nos origines" [all our origins], advertised on the French channels, only testifies that the government feels the need to give value to the immigrants and underline the positive contribution that they can make to the Quebec society.
The system is never ideal and it's hard to adapt for the adolescents especially because they do not always choose to be in the new situation. Those who have been most successful in integrating are the ones that have taken charge of their situation and have a positive attitude towards learning French. Because language is a means and not a goal in itself, it is best to learn it while interacting with the society and while advancing in the school curriculum. An integrated approach where students are learning French through other courses, such as science or history, and are mixed with other students in art and physical education classes, instead of segregated accueil classes, would allow them to use French in real life and associate a value to it.
Immigrants who have actively sought opportunities to interact with the community through volunteering were more successful in establishing ties, learning the language and becoming part of the community (Handy). The process of integration is not easy or fast, but after several years of perseverance immigrant youths can succeed and be able to have many more opportunities than their unilingual or bilingual peers.
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Gouvernment du Québec. Tous nos origines enrichissent le Québec. 2011. Web. 8 Apr 2011
Handy, Femida, and Itay Greenspan. "Immigrant Volunteering: A Stepping Stone to Integration?" Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly 38.6 (2009): 956-82. Print.
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---. "Quand Je Sors d'Accueil: Linguistic Integration of Immigrant Adolescents in Quebec Secondary Schools." Language, Culture & Curriculum 23.2 (2010): 95-107. Print.