Mandatory Language Tests for Immigrants

It seems that all skilled immigrants to Canada will need to pass a language proficiency test.  Even those whose native language is English and whose careers are based on daily use of the English language.

At first glance this seems like a reasonable idea.  The truth is it is a dangerous tool which can be used to enforce racist and xenophobic policies under the guise of "integration".  However, it seems like enough of the commentors on the Star's website disagree with me. When I read the comments I was disappointed to find that most of those writing were supportive of the new policy and hostile to foreigners.  My own comment achieved a stunning 16 "disagrees", a new record for me.

The article talks about a woman who was born in New York, graduated from Harvard and has been practising law for 13 years.  Clearly there is no need to test this person on her language ability.  To suggest that anyone in the government Canada is even qualified to pass judgment on her language skills is ridiculous.  Yet she must prepare for the language test while simultaneously managing her home life and career.

Wait, what?

She has to prepare?  Many of the comments on the Star were questioning this.  Why should she need to prepare if she is so confident of her language skills?

Well, the sad truth is that language tests are notorious for being debatable about their content.  Thankfully, the test in question doesn't have any grammar questions (despite newspaper reports to the contrary), and seems to be completely about reading and writing comprehension.  But the truth is that any test which measures "language" is going to be strongly influenced by how well the test-taker understands the desired answer to a question.  A person's grasp of language is not necessarily related to their grasp of test-taking.  And since she must pay to take the test, it behoves her to prepare, so that her money isn't wasted by an over-zealous and pedantic test-grader.

Besides the dubious nature of testing a native English speaker's grasp of English, and the obvious waste of resources this entails, is the question of whether or not this exercise has any merit whatsoever.

The comments on the Star were full of sad, sad stories about going into a shop and not being able to find an employee who spoke English.  My heart nearly broke into a million pieces as these poor, poor people recounted their tales.  The ordeals of a lady who couldn't find an English speaker in a shop in Chinatown.  The escapades of a gentleman who was unable to locate the kolbasa in the grocery store and couldn't find an employee who understood his question.

All of these stories have something in common.  The speaker suffers from an absurdly inflated sense of entitlement.  They act as if they are being personally injured or insulted when they go somewhere and someone doesn't speak their language.  It never occurs to them that THEY are somehow flawed for not knowing more than one language.  They just bitch and whine that multiculturalism is a failure.  They ignore the fact that all of them are descended from people who didn't speak the local language when they arrived: none of their ancestors spoke the languages of the Natives.  The hypocrisy goes further, however, because these same people are the type that go into Quebec and complain that the people don't speak English.

Ignoring the petty 'foreign employee in a shop' syndrome, the bigger question is whether or not non-local-speakers are even useful to the society at large.  It should be pretty clear that they are.  There is no reason that a doctor can't practice medicine in Chinese or in Italian if they have Chinese or Italian patients.  This doctor may have difficulty reading the laws on what drugs are legal, or other various tasks, but isn't it the job of the medical college to regulate such things? If the college decided to offer its services in Chinese (because the Chinese population will soon be the biggest minority group in Canada) would that somehow harm the English-speaking doctors and patients?  For regulated professions we have licensing and examination boards to keep out people who can't function in those roles.  For any other task, why does it matter if the person is illiterate in English?  The electrician who comes to your house to install a new light fixture doesn't need to speak English.  He needs to know how to install wiring, and he needs to know how to communicate with YOU.  If you (hypothetically) only speak German, then that's what he needs to speak.

Furthermore, it's also pretty obvious that monolingualism is an artifact of (some) adult immigrants only.  Their children will always (always!) learn the local language.  They will be bilingual, speaking their home language at home and their local language at school and work.  And their children are (sadly) almost always monolingual in the local language.  This always happens, as long as the family stays in the country.  So any worries about Canada turning into some country where nobody can speak to anybody are just ridiculous.

Finally, Canada is supposed to be a free country.  If I decide that I want to speak nothing but Esperanto, and I teach my children only this language, and I home-school them, and throw away my TV, is this not my choice?  Sure, nobody will be able to communicate with me.  But don't I have the right? Don't I have the right to try to find work at an Esperanto-friendly business, dealing with Esperanto-speaking customers?  Don't I have the right to fail at that task?  Of course I do.  But I was BORN in Canada.  Newcomers aren't allowed to fail and aren't allowed to even try.