Second language training helps newcomers

According to recent projections from Statistics Canada, within the next 15 years 50 per cent of Canadians will be visible minorities and by 2031, one-third of Calgarians will be foreign born. Many will need more than basic English-as-a-Second-Language training to succeed academically and professionally.

For this reason, the University of Calgary’s English for Academic Purposes program has been working for 10 years to prepare students for their post-secondary and professional careers. EAP celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, where past program students were recognized and future directions discussed.

“[It] needs to be common knowledge for all Canadians to understand that language ability has nothing to do with intellectual ability, at all,” said Anuradha Sengupta, director of the EAP program.

“We get brilliant people: Canadians, international, scientists, mathematicians, writers, poets, all of these types of students come to us and the only thing they really need assistance with is their English language proficiency,” said Sengupta.

EAP differs from ESL programs as it does not focus on the building blocks of English. Instead it focuses on supporting and teaching non-native speakers how to function competitively and scholastically within a post-secondary environment. This includes advanced academic writing and comprehension, oral capabilities, advanced vocabulary development, higher-level listening strategies and even idiomatic humour.

Approximately 20 per cent of U of C students are immigrants or non-native English speakers, and they must compete directly with the rest of the English-proficient student body.

“That’s what our program strives to do, is to put them as close as possible to an equal footing when it comes to their English language proficiency, making them better writers, better speakers and with greater reading comprehension skills so that they can survive in university,” said Sengupta.

The program typically runs for a full year, but is split into three-tiers, where students are placed based on a proficiency assessment. They can take the program before their studies begin or simultaneously, both of which have had equally successful results.

“It’s really demanding,” said Aminata Sagno, an EAP student currently finishing her final EAP component before starting her studies. Sagno immigrated to Canada in 2006 and was placed in the second-tier of the EAP program in fall 2009. She credits the program with bringing her up to academic competency.

“I think I wouldn’t be successful at university and my English wouldn’t be at this level,” Sagno said.

Looking ahead, Sengupta feels the program needs to increase focus on the speaking and listening aspect of English learning. As English is mandatory in many overseas high schools, today’s students are coming with above-basic grammatical skills.

“They are able to have really good structure in classic composition, so they’re able to write. But what is still missing are the verbal skills and the listening skills that are really key to interactive learning,” said Sengupta. “And that can only happen when you’re in a setting like this, talking to other people who are also trying to learn listening skills.”

EAP students attend various lectures during the semester, seeing what it’s like to take notes and to determine if they can follow along with the rest of the class, said Sengupta.

Sagno, about to begin her undergraduate degree in nursing, joked about this exercise.

“I found it easy, like I could understand everything they said,” Sagno said. “But my last lecture was with a professor from geosciences. That lecture I didn’t understand. So it depends on the topic.”

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