Language ability makes for happier immigrants

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The Article

Success depends on the ability to communicate. It’s true in business, education and social situations. It’s true for men and women alike. There are no exceptions.

So how could anyone oppose the call by Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, for new immigrants to be competent in speaking one of Canada’s two official languages?

Language is their key to success, yet NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow says she has “a real problem” with it and some commentators for ethnic groups have decried the idea. One went so far as to call it “a covert form of racism” to bar ethnic minorities from entering Canada.

Perhaps it’s time for critics to look at the facts. Statistics clearly demonstrate that language skills are necessary for an immigrant’s economic success and integration into Canada’s workforce. Conversely, there is a huge cost to those who don’t have such capabilities, as it puts them at a definite economic and social disadvantage.

In a 2009 Compas Research survey on strategies for integrating internationally educated professionals into the Canadian workforce, 87 per cent of human resource executives cited inadequate language skills as the top reason for not hiring professional immigrants. (Perhaps that explains why we have some of the best educated taxi drivers in the world, yet we still have problems communicating with them.)

A 2005 Statistics Canada study found that employment rates of immigrants increased with their ability to speak English and that language proficiency had the biggest impact on their ability to find employment in a high-skilled job or in their intended field.

In other words, education, job experience and professional credentials don’t matter much if immigrants don’t have basic language abilities. In spite of this, immigrants simply aren’t taking advantage of government-sponsored language programs. According to Kenney, there are plenty of programs available, but only 20 per cent of immigrants utilize them.

A decade ago, Australia faced many of the same problems with its immigration system. Its educated immigrants lacked adequate language skills, and that prevented them from finding employment and success Down Under. To fix the problem, Australia implemented a tough language test for all prospective economic immigrants. Since then, the numbers speak for themselves—89 per cent of immigrants with language fluency got jobs right away and 76 per cent of immigrants earn more than the median wage. Think of what a mandatory language proficiency test could accomplish here, where it was recently reported that 43 per cent of new immigrants have household incomes be-low our low income cut-off.

Canada needs immigrants. We have an aging population, a declining birthrate and a significant shortage of skilled labourers. We need immigrants to sustain and grow our population, and to supply our present and future workforce needs.

But—and this is the catch—we need a certain kind of immigrant. We need educated immigrants with specialized skills who can contribute to our economy and society, and we need them to be financially established as soon as possible.

If immigrants can’t contribute to the tax base, then they are only exacerbating, not solving, our short-and long-term problems. It’s not responsible for any government to bring in hundreds of thousands of immigrants who can’t contribute to the economy and are destined to become a drain on our limited health and social resources.

Canada’s current policy of ignoring language requirements or allowing immigrants to self-report on their language abilities serves no one. It only sets immigrants up for failure and Canadians up for higher taxes.

On the other hand, a mandatory language test would ensure that Canada gets the immigrants it needs. The test won’t assess their ability to be a good citizen; it won’t attest to their character, commitment to Canada or willingness to work hard. But it can predict their economic and social success and that is often a good predictor of the above characteristics. More than that, it’s a strong indication of their willingness to integrate into, and contribute to, Canadian society.

There’s nothing wrong with creating immigration policies that benefit Canada first and are focused on meeting our needs. In fact, that should be the goal of all government policy. Once Canadians get beyond the labels and focus on the facts, they will readily agree that a mandatory language test is good policy—both for Canada and its immigrants.

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Joel Johannesen
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