Language and the Immigrant Wage Gap

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI recently came across this article in MacLean’s: “New figures show just how big Canada’s immigrant wage gap is“. It was the sub-heading that caught my attention: “Even many second-generation immigrants earn much less than native-born workers. How speaking English impacts wages.”

After describing and discussing trends in the gap in wages between first and second generation immigrants to Canada and those who have been in Canada for several generations, the author talks about the role of English language proficiency and this wage gap. More specifically, the author focuses on whether English is spoken at home, and how this plays a role in the wage gap:

The latest census data says the native-first generation immigrant wage gap is 16 per cent at the national level. Once we examine whether immigrants speak English at home, things change — the wage difference is just 5.8 per cent. But for first-generation immigrants who don’t speak English at home, the gap jumps to 27.3 per cent.
For second-generation immigrants, there is barely any gap for those who speak English at home (0.7 per cent) but it’s still a significant gap for those who don’t speak English at home (a whopping 45.7 per cent).
This pattern also holds in the major metropolitan centres in the English-speaking parts of the country, which attract the most immigrants.

This article is written by an economist; he is just taking the statistical data that’s out there and analyzing it in different ways and seeing what interesting findings emerge. (It seems like there were no linguists, language teachers, people that work with immigrants, etc. involved in this article.) But I find the article dangerously close to leaving readers with the conclusion that all immigrants should abandon their L1 if it doesn’t happen to be English, and speak English at home, in order to close the wag gap.

Now, the author does acknowledge that there isn’t a causal relationship between speaking English at home and earning higher wages:

Though these patterns are striking, they should not be interpreted as causal – immigrants can’t necessarily start speaking English at home and expect to see their future earnings increase. There are unobserved qualities of individuals that may correlate both with the tendency to speak English at home as well as with labour market earnings potential. Without holding these fixed in some way, we can’t say whether there is a causal relationship between English skills and the gap in labour market outcomes.

I definitely agree; this is far from a causal relationship. First, neither the data nor the article define whether when they say an immigrant family “speaks English at home” are they referring to families who have immigrated from other countries where English is the dominant language and/or speak English as a first language? Or are they referring to immigrants who may have a different L1 but choose to raise their children in only English? It seems very obvious to me that if you’re talking about immigrants who may have English as an L1 and have come from the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, etc. the there could be a host of socioeconomic and cultural advantages they would have over immigrants from other places that may give them a leg up in the job market. These are the “unobserved qualities of individuals” that the author mentions.

The author goes on to speculate.

But supposing that the findings here are suggestive of a causal relationship, why does speaking English at home matter so much?

One obvious answer is that individuals who speak English at home speak better English in general — and this would mean better communication at work. […] Or perhaps individuals of foreign descent that speak English at home tend to have other important skills on average.

But another possibility is the labour market discriminates against individuals with weaker English skills even when English is not important for productivity.

The author makes some important connections between English proficiency, the workplace and language-based discrimination in the workplace. His third point–that the labour market discriminates against “weaker English skills”, accents, non-standard Englishes and varieties of English that are different from the local variety even when it’s not an important for productivity–is a particularly important one. Anecdotally, I see this all the time in both my broader workplace, as well as around the city, in society in general, and even in pop culture.

Yes, the link between language skills and the workplace is real and important. But rather than leave folks with the idea that they should abandon their L1 when they arrive in Canada, why don’t we provide more funding and resources for different linguistic support and development mechanisms, so that people who want to continue to improve their English proficiency, and reap the benefits that may make on their wages, can do so if they wish? Also, initiatives to change attitudes in society in general, making people more understanding and accepting of linguistic diversity and bi- and multilingualism would also more helpfully contribute to closing the wage gap, I think.

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Reversing Deficit Discourses

Around this time of year, I tend to do different talks around the university for faculty, staff or teaching assistants about dealing with linguistically-diverse classes in terms of teaching and learning.

I’ll often begin these sessions by talking about what faculty, staff or TAs can do to help avoid the deficit discourses around international students and ESL/EAL students at our universities. It’s a matter of framing: international students are often characterized as lacking language or cultural skills, but I encourage folks to remember that international students are actually in the process of adding language varieties and cultural know-how to their repertoire.

Then I bring out my most cited of Bourdieu quotes–“academic language […] is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 8)”–and remind everyone that all students are in the process of acquiring academic and English and the language of their discipline. Depending on their linguistic background, some students from non-English-speaking backgrounds just have a bit farther to travel than those raised and educated using English to add Canadian Academic English to their repertoire of languages.

None of this is particularly revolutionary, but it can be a bit of a reframing of things for folks who don’t spend all day thinking about language and working with people developing their English language proficiency. The monoglot ideology (Silverstein, 1996) is really prevalent in of English Canada: in general, English Canadians are really not very successful language learners, and tend to fall into the “everyone else can speak English so why should I learn anything else?” trap. Even in places with a lot of cultural diversity, a real embracing of linguistic diversity, valuing multi/plurilingualism, on behalf of the whole population –including monolingual English speakers, and not just those who happen to speak a non-English heritage language at home–doesn’t necessarily follow. The lack of linguistic diversity on the CBC is one example of this. 

 

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Martin, M. D. S. (1994). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power (1 edition). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Silverstein M. (1996). Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In D. Brenneis & R. Macaulay (eds.), The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology, 284–306. Boulder, CO : Westview Press.

Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

Canadian Spelling up in Smoke?

Capture2By now, my friends and family have become used to my regular raging as we drive past The Center on Windsor Street. I have nothing against the mission of this “hub of openness fostering community and collective growth”, but regarding their name…COULDN’T THEY HAVE SPELLED IT THE CANADIAN WAY?

The other industry in Canada that seems to have a love affair with American spelling is the vaping industry. There are a lot of vape shops that have popped up in the last few years, and the majority of them seem to prefer the American spelling “vapor” over the Canadian “vapour”, at least in Nova Scotia and PEI.

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(Props to the Vapour Spot and the Vapour Trail for providing us a place to preserve our national linguistic identity while stocking up on e-cig juice!)

I don’t think there’s a secret American-led conspiracy to get rid of Canadian spelling conventions, nor do I blame “kids these days” or the “horrible ‘grammar’ teaching they receive in schools”. I tend to agree with Shuttleworth (2012), that computer language settings  play a very influential role in people’s, especially students’, exposure to and familiarity with spelling conventions. The default language on many Canadians’ computers is American English, and unless they have an interest in language or Canadian English, many never change these settings. So when Microsoft Word underlines colour (or vapour!) with those dreaded red dots, you’re probably just going to change it to color ( or vapor!) and move on.

But I do think there is a cumulative effect, and for many who don’t take a particular interest in the continuing use of Canadian spelling, the more you get used to seeing a word spelled a certain way, the weirder it is to see it spelled differently. Will the Vapour Trail eventually change their name?

Also, the fact that an update to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary is years overdue does not help.

(I suppose I should also stop assuming that before making a big decision such as choosing your company’s name, or having a large expensive sign printed, business owners stop and think and perhaps get someone to proofread things. Though of course, some companies do misspell their name on purpose. )

 

An Illustrated Style Guide?

elements of style illustratedI heard about The Elements of Style Illustrated
on the radio this past weekend. Illustrator Maira Kalman  had worked her magic on the ol’ Strunk and White chestnut and I was intrigued. An illustrated style guide? I pictured jazzy artistic renderings of the syntactic sentence trees I had to do in my undergrad. However, a bit of googling brought up several excerpts and examples of her warm painting style and the illustrations in the book. Many of them bring to life the example sentences Strunk and White use in the book. Beautiful work.

I did lament, though, that Kalman chose the most maligned of style guides (read takedowns of Strunk and White here, and here). Couldn’t she have chosen a corpus-based English grammar or style guide that’s based on English the way its actually used? Alas.

Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

AWELL 2016: Keynote Address

AWELLConferenceRackCard2016_02Feb03_Page_1-1200x533I’m giving the keynote address on the opening day of the Academic Writing and English Language Learners (AWELL) conference being held at Saint Mary’s University tomorrow. It’s a really neat conference which brings together a range of people who deal with writing in the university environment: ESL/EAP instructors, writing support centre tutors and administrators, and faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Here’s the abstract:

What to correct? How to correct? Why to correct? Focus on Form with Multilingual Writers

In the teaching of writing to multilingual writers, the grammar correction debate rages on—should we be sticklers about the fine points of grammatical accuracy or overlook errors that don’t inhibit communication? A focus on form gives rise to questions about which linguistic standards to adhere to, how to approach form and grammar when giving feedback, and what our students even gain from it. This talk will offer a look at differing approaches to form and grammar in the teaching of academic writing to multilingual writers, as well as the history, politics, and preferences surrounding these practices.

Here are the slides: AWELL 2016 Presentation

 My talk puts the forward the proposition that we should see our role as language specialists rather than just writing specialists. We should move past whatever prescriptivist tendencies we may have and work to promote a socio-literate perspective on language form and use in our classrooms that better suits the linguistically diverse university environment in Canada today.

The Joy of Dad Jokes

haircutDad jokes–jokes so corny, so lame, so obvious, they make us roll our eyes, groan and exclaim “DAAAAAaaaad!!!” like an embarrassed 8-year old. (Here are some, and some more, and yet another list, and even a Dad Joke Quiz.)

But could Dad Jokes be the gateway humour for language learners? Lots of people have written lots of stuff about humour and language learning:  learning about it and through it in the classroom, using humour as a teaching tool, and the challenge of understanding and making jokes as you learn a second or additional language.

Both as a language learner and teacher, I’ve felt that humour was the final frontier; the level of linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to understand jokes in the media, in advertising, or those made socially was incredibly high. And making your own jokes was even more of a challenge.

But today I was giving a talk to some of the university campus tour staff on best practices for serving students whose first language is not English. Someone mentioned that the jokes he makes with tour groups whose English proficiency is lower often fall flat, and he wondered if it was best to avoid humour altogether. It made me think about how on different occasions some cheesy quip or aside I’ve made in the classroom has been met with roaring laughter. So I suggested he not cut out humour compeltely, but to keep it on the corny side.

Why are Dad Jokes accessible for learners? First, they’re usually super obvious. Lots of them deal with language, but very simple language. And the aspects of language that are at the centre of many Dad Jokes are the very linguistic phenomena that beguile learners: homophones (“Why can’t you play poker in the jungle? Because there are too many cheetahs”),  word boundaries (“Did you get a haircut? No, I got them all cut.”), multiple meanings of words (“Do you know where you can get chicken broth in bulk? The stock market.”), literal vs. figurative meaning (“Did you hear about the guy who invented Lifesavers? They say he made a mint.”), and syntactic ambiguity (“A ham sandwich walks into a bar and orders a beer. Bartender says, ‘Sorry we don’t serve food here.'”)

I think I might let my inner Dad shine in class over the next while and see what happens. Do you ever use Dad Jokes in class?

 

 

Linguistic Diversity and the CBC

cbc logoI love the CBC, especially CBC Radio, and I listen a lot, so I can’t help but reflect on what I’m hearing. And it’s long struck me that the CBC doesn’t go far enough in terms of linguistic diversity– in terms of regional linguistic diversity, the evolving nature of Canadian English , and the issue of nativeness.

I know that the CBC has a diversity policy, which is  great thing. The policy says the following:

“Canada’s population is made up of a wealth of cultures, linguistic and ethno-cultural communities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religions and people with different abilities. Each of us contributes to the collective success. CBC/Radio-Canada is committed to reflecting the country’s diversity through its programming. All Canadians need to be able to recognize themselves on-air and know that its programs reflect the changing face of Canada on all platforms.

But the thing is, in terms of the national on-air personalities on CBC Radio, I don’t think they live up to this policy,

First, let’s talk about the standard Canadian English heard on-air. It is a fact of life that any language changes and evolves. Yet the CBC seems to maintain a certain old-fashioned, conservative idea of what Canadian English is, which is at odds with the way it’s actually spoken today by millions of people. A perfect example of this is the pronunciation of the word news  or  Tuesday. Traditionally, the Canadian pronunciation of the vowel in these words was more in line with the variant heard in many British dialects, with the palatal glide before the “u” vowel (/nju:z/ and /tju:zdej/); the absence of the /j/  (/nu:z/ and /tu:zdej/) is more common in American dialects. But the thing is, there’s been a lot of language change in that area, and in this study, for example, 80% of people under 40 dropped the /j/ in the word news, and it’s common even in the speech of 70-year-olds. Language changes, and this is one way in which Canadian English is evolving and has evolved. (And that study is from 20 years ago!) So why, according to a friend who works there, are  people who work at CBC Radio chastised if they say /nu:z/ on the air? That does not seem to be “reflecting the changing face of Canada”, as most young people don’t speak in a way that sounds like that. (And that’s only one example; there are others.)

Another way in which the CBC falls short of really allowing all Canadian to recognize themselves on air is in regional and social variation in the language of on-air personalities. The different Englishes in Canada sound different: the qualities of the vowels especially make Newfoundland English sound different from Edmonton English from Aboriginal English or the English of African-Nova Scotians. Regional programming is more representative, but most national personalities on CBC Radio, for example, all speak a “cleaned up” standard Canadian English that erases any regional flavour. I’m not proposing they get a bunch of Newfoundland fishermen to deliver the news in regionalisms and slang, but just that Standard Canadian English can be be spoken in a way that preserves some of the phonetic qualities present in the many Canadian Englishes. The BBC has done it; why couldn’t the CBC?

Finally, Canada prides itself for being a country of immigrants; a multi-cultural mosaic of cultures, right? Multi-cultural often means multi-lingual. Why don’t we hear any non-native speakers of English on the air as national radio personalities? I’m not talking about someone who is still in the beginning stages of learning the language but rather a high-fluency, extremely proficient speaker of English who just happens to speak it as a second or additional language, with some type of audible accent. I don’t think that would be a big deal. Non-native English speakers are my friends, colleagues and neighbours; why shouldn’t they be able to be heard on our public broadcaster?

I’ve been rhetorically asking why the CBC doesn’t get a bit more progressive in this area, but we know full well that if they made any of the three changes I’ve described above, they’d get hate mail in droves from that certain type of CBC listener that doesn’t like the youngs and their degenerate way of talking and that can only put up with the “awful twang” of the guys on Dead Dog Cafe or 22 Minutes in a comedy context and then, only for so long. But those type of reactions are barely disguised ageism, racism and regionalism most of the time: see certain people’s reaction to Shad as the new host of Q as a case in point. Rather than pandering to the old-fashioned and intolerant in its listenership, the CBC should show leadership and, by featuring a variety of voices on air, better fulfil its diversity mandate.