We have work to do to make Canadians bilingual | M. Christian Uhlig

What would make it ‘cool’ to be bilingual – so you could improve your career prospects? Share your thoughts

If you’re a British man or woman, congratulations on your newly attained British citizenship. But if you’re a Canadian citizen, your newly acquired right to British citizenship might not be enough to convince your bosses that you have learned a foreign language.

Canadians working at a company that are not proficient in English (or French, for that matter) might be looking for ways to improve their perceived level of professionalism in the workplace, so they will have the unique ability to work alongside co-workers who speak their native languages. But if you’re a bilingual Canadian employee, you probably know what’s wrong with that scenario.

In 2014, HSBC decided to give its employees who speak multiple languages the option to take bilingual training in their new languages. The company also maintains a training module in 15 other languages as well. Why not bilingual training for all Canadian employees? One reason for the lack of widespread training could be the lack of political will to remove a barrier that’s prevented minorities from reaching the top echelons of workplaces across the world.

The same is true in Canada, where a one-size-fits-all approach exists for English and French (the official languages) in some areas but an entirely different approach exists in other areas. And that leaves most people stranded between two (broken) worlds.

“There’s a great deal of inconsistency in Canada about what bilingualism is, where it exists and what is expected of immigrants. This is a challenge for newcomers because there are so many,” says M. Christian Uhlig, the author of Welcome to Canada, which outlines the issues that Canadian employers face when seeking to attract and keep diverse talent.

“How you can advise someone coming from a place where they’re already bilingual and teaching them how to code in English and how to write about things in French – that’s a challenge,” he says.

Uhlig is the executive director of the Bilingualism for Work initiative at Ryerson University, a bilingual job training program with support from municipalities and corporations in Toronto. Ryerson offers bilingual job training for students in elementary school, as well as programs for students of all ages and genders. For employers, the program offers job placement and workshop support for aspiring bilingual employees as well as partner work groups for big companies.

“We work to help equip employers that have their own presence in Toronto with the right skills they need to succeed in Canada,” says Uhlig. “Canada has a lot of opportunities that are not broadly recognized, such as companies in this city that want to expand their operations, but we don’t see those businesses get as much training as companies that are already growing.”

Canadian bilingualism started to wane in the 1990s, Uhlig says, largely because of a political effort to ensure all employees who worked at Canadian companies were speaking and reading English. As a result, many Canadian companies moved away from bilingual training. Companies have to do more than find them bilingual employees, says Uhlig.

“How does Canada give different communities in their cities the tools they need to bring their skills up to par for employers?” he asks. “At the same time, it’s really important that employers and the government address educational programs that are making sure that people can continue to learn English as well as their second language.”

Uhlig advises employers to experiment with different training programs in order to find one that best suits their needs. “All kinds of things can work – even if you choose some odd solutions that no one else is going to do. But you have to try,” he says.

Unfortunately, those experiments can cost some time and money, something that employers often struggle to afford during tight economic times.

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