- Jennifer MacDonald (@Jen_Mac_Donald) is head teacher of ESL Programs at Dalhousie University and is proficient in that way people say “Yep!” while inhaling (AKA the Gaelic gasp).
Picture the scene: a busy Halifax sushi restaurant, Friday night. The waiter greets a couple at the door. The server seems to use English as an additional language, or EAL—it might be her second, third or fourth. The server responds to the couple's request to sit at a particular table, telling them it wasn't available and directs them to an open spot. "I don't understand what you're saying," the guy says, rudely pushing past the waiter toward the unavailable table, until another staff member intervenes.
Witnessing the scene from across the restaurant, I could understand the waiter without issue. Her accent was different than mine—I grew up in Nova Scotia and English is my first language, and hers isn't. But so what? I could figure it out. But why couldn't, or rather, why didn't, the other guy?
Immigration to Halifax and Nova Scotia has been growing steadily for the last decade, and with it increasing cultural and linguistic diversity. According to the 2016 census, close to 45,000 Nova Scotians have a mother tongue other than English, French or an Indigenous language. That's five percent of the population who might speak Arabic, Mandarin, Tagalog or Spanish in addition to the English they likely use for work, school, shopping or life in the community. In parts of the province, especially Halifax, that linguistic diversity is even richer, and even more so during tourist season.
In most parts of NS, English is the common language of business, education and government. The 2016 census also reports that English is the mother tongue of close to 90 percent of the province. Immigrants to Nova Scotia who use English as an additional language are aware of this and undertake a substantial investment of time, energy and often money into developing their English language ability upon arrival, with classes, tutoring or self-study.
But why should newcomers who use EAL do all the work? Don't all of us have a role to play in the linguistically diverse reality of today's NS? Maybe folks across the city and province whose first language is English—especially those who have never learned another language—should do training in how to be better communicators in an environment where lots of different languages are spoken.
While newcomers might work on expressing themselves more fluently while speaking in English or making their writing more grammatically accurate, local English speakers might learn how to listen better to understand accents which are different from their own. (Everyone has an accent, after all.)
Or what about techniques for speaking in English with people whose language background is different from yours? (Hint: It doesn't involve translation by volume— repeating what you've just said, but louder. And it sure doesn't involve closing down and dismissing someone, like the jerk in the sushi restaurant.)
Formal training of this type for thousands of Nova Scotians might not be realistic, admittedly. But what is necessary is a shift in who bears the onus of effort in interactions between people of different language backgrounds. We have to shift from seeing the user of EAL as the one responsible for making the interaction a successful one, to seeing it as a shared responsibility. It takes two to tango—and to communicate.
We all have moments in conversation where we misunderstand each other or have to ask someone to repeat something. It might be because of an accent we're not used to, or maybe it's because of background noise or trying to wrap our head around a complex idea. But we all have our part to play in making interactions between people from different language backgrounds successful ones, by meeting the people we're talking with halfway.
Really listen: connect, slow down, say things a different way. Think of it as Maritime hospitality adapted for the 21st century.