Calgary

Newcomer students share stories of learning English in an increasingly crowded system

Young newcomers are faced with hopping into a new school system and learning a new language, all while navigating an unfamiliar environment. They shared their personal stories of hopes, hardships and successes.

Organization designed to support immigrant youth sees record demand from schools

four photos, side-by-side, show four young people.
The pressure on newcomer youth to integrate with a new school environment is immense as they face the challenges of learning a new language and navigating an unfamiliar environment. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

As Alberta's population soars and people flock to its largest city in record numbers, Calgary schools are feeling the pressure as the student population grows, too. 

And some of that pressure comes from a growth in newcomer young people who speak little English.

The Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth (CBFY) is an organization designed to support immigrant and refugee youth. Much of the the foundation's work involves helping schools and teachers who are being stretched thin navigate the influx of new students as they learn English.

But the organization says it's seeing record demand from school boards for its support.

The CBFY interviews newcomer students as they join Calgary's school system. These initial interviews indicate where students are at in their learning process, and they help the foundation connect families with resources such as mentorships and in-school programs for young newcomers. 

Frank Cattoni, CEO of the foundation, says that, in a typical year, they do initial interviews with about 2,500 newcomer students. Now, for this school year, he says they're expecting an influx of nearly 10,000.

"That's putting an incredible amount of pressure on the school systems and the organizations like ours that support newcomer children," Cattoni said.

Students navigating the change

But there's also pressure on the students. 

Young newcomers are faced with hopping into a new school system and learning a new language, all while navigating an unfamiliar environment.

The CBC's Jo Horwood joined the CBFY during a youth conference at the Central Library to hear their stories of what it's like to try to fit in when you don't speak the language.

They shared their personal stories of hopes, hardships and successes.

Natalina Tesfe, a recent high school graduate and now first-year university student, arrived in Calgary in 2018. 

"Compared to when I first came … over the five years that I've been here, there is an increase in new students," she said.

a young woman speaks into a microphone and smiles.
Natalina Tesfe says she didn't know many other Eritrean students when she first came to Calgary six years ago. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

She attended Catholic school, and she says her experience was that students who were learning English often stuck together, which felt isolating.

"They didn't want to be embarrassed, if they spell something wrong or pronounce something wrong," she said. "But I find it makes it harder for them to learn English quicker because they're not talking to other students who are born here, or grew up here."

New school, new language

Simona Yhdego came to Canada nearly five years ago. The 17-year-old says she spoke no English before coming here.

"I only knew how to say my name and how to say, 'How are you?' That's it," said Yhdego. "The environment, everything was new."

She says she spent the first little bit of her arrival to Canada only with her family. 

"Over time, I had friends to help me … but at first, it's really hard."

a young woman smiles.
Simona Yhdego has been in Canada for almost five years now, and has since learned English. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

As she would watch other students communicate and not understand the words that were being said, she remembers it feeling lonely. Yhdego says her teachers would often use Google translate to communicate with her when she first started school.

"I used to cry a lot in class."

And using translator apps at school is not uncommon for students who are learning English.

Yeva Barinova is a 16-year-old French immersion student from Ukraine who moved here in the summer of 2022. She uses translator apps in class to support her learning.

"I use it the most on tests … when it's not your native language, you need more time to understand it," she said, adding that not all teachers allow her to use a translator app in class.

"It's hard … when you need to use very advanced vocabulary.… I was crying."

a young woman with glasses smiles.
Yeva Barinova is attending French immersion, learning two new languages at the same time. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

She says learning French is also helping her learn English.

Her advice for her fellow English-learners? 

"Just stop using Google Translate when you need to write … because you need to practise how to create a sentence."

'It's important you make connections'

Eamon Saldana is part of the advisory council with the CBFY's mentorship program. At one point, Saldana was a young newcomer himself who sought mentorship from the program, and he, too, arrived in Canada with very little English.

"I was in the same shoes as them, so I just want to help them out and discover who they are," said Saldana.

a young man speaks into a microphone.
Eamon Saldana is a mentor with the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth. When he first arrived in Canada, he also participated in the mentorship program. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Saldana says the program was an important part of navigating a new life in Canada. Arriving with very little English, he says his confidence when meeting new people took a hit.

"At times, it's isolating because I'm an introvert at heart," he said, adding that not having a firm grasp on the language even makes small talk challenging, contributing to added shyness or the fear of saying the wrong thing.

But if you're speaking English and you make a mistake, Saldana says "don't worry about it, you're human" — and most of all, "it's important you make connections."

Through the mentorship experience, he says developing his language skills with other newcomers is what helped him become more outgoing. Now, that's what he's teaching his mentees.

"I get goosebumps. I see my own mentees teaching and facilitating.… It was very, very, very rewarding."

Demand for resources

According to StatsCan data, nearly one in four people in Canada are immigrants — making up 23 per cent of the population — the highest proportion of immigrants in over 150 years, as of 2021.

The foundation partners with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) and Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) to run a variety of school-based programs for newcomer children, with staff specializing in over 40 languages.

Cattoni says the influx of new students is causing existing English language classes in Calgary schools to become overcrowded.

"They can't meet the demand, or there's so many kids in the class with so many varieties of different languages needs that they can't be met. It's putting pressure on the administration."

In an effort to help newcomer families get used to public school in Calgary, the CBE operates the Welcome Centre, which all students who are new to Canada must register with before attending a CBE school. It's part of the CBE's partnership with the CBFY.

In an email statement to CBC News, the CBE noted it has "over 40,000 English as an additional language (EAL) learners."

The school board says that it's seen a sharp increase in new Welcome Centre registrations represents the highest annual non-Canadian citizen student admission to CBE schools recorded within the last decade.

As for the Catholic school board, an email statement to CBC News says it has expanded its English Language Development program, which includes in-person and online resources, to "support an increase in complexities."

Meanwhile, Cattoni says he's received calls from schools asking the CBFY to expand its programs and accommodate spaces for hundreds more students.

"And I was just like, 'where am I going to find the money for that?'" 

As the demand for these supports soars, Cattoni says the foundation has reorganized and is trying to find savings and hire more staff. 

"But in the interim, it's putting a lot of pressure on the families and on the organizations that support these families," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lily Dupuis

Reporter

Lily Dupuis joined CBC News as a researcher for the 2023 Alberta provincial election. She can be reached at lily.dupuis@cbc.ca.

With files from Jo Horwood and Elise Stolte