When Rim Shin moved to Canada from South Korea with her husband and two children almost 10 years ago, she struggled at first to interact and get important information.
Shin, now an immigration settlement worker with the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society’s Immigrant Welcome Centre, knew a bit of English before she moved here, but she was overwhelmed at times.
“The system is different and there is no translation into Korean,” she said. “I could not access important information in my language. The written English language can be difficult to understand. Sometimes when I phoned some company or government office, they couldn’t understand my English because of my accent, so it was very frustrating.”
Buying a house in Nanaimo was one of the first roadblocks – the contract was all in English, in tiny letters.
The family also wanted information about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), but struggled to navigate the English-only Vancouver Island Health Authority website.
Shin finds Nanaimo to be a welcoming community, but her accent still makes it hard for some people to understand her.
While most clients also have positive experiences in Nanaimo – many talk about the friendliness of residents – some people told her that others stare at them when wearing traditional dress and one client was told by someone to go back to their country of origin because they couldn’t speak English well. Shin said some people who initially moved to Nanaimo end up moving to the Greater Vancouver area because they want to be with people who speak the same language or are from the same ethnic group; others move to Nanaimo from Vancouver because they want to immerse themselves more in Canadian culture without having that ethnic group to fall back on.
The latest language statistics from the 2011 census show that in Nanaimo the majority of the population – 72,615 out of 83,810 – reported English as their mother tongue, while 1,170 reported French as their mother tongue and 8,115 had a non-official first language. But the language Nanaimoites speak at home is more singular: 78,570 people spoke English at home, compared with 265 French speakers and 2,770 who spoke a non-official language at home.
The list of non-official languages spoken is long with Chinese, Dutch, German, Punjabi and Spanish ranked highest.
Nationally, one-fifth of Canada’s population spoke a language other than English or French at home and 80 per cent of Canadians who reported speaking an immigrant language most often at home lived in six census metropolitan areas: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa-Gatineau.
Nanette Leather, assistant director of the multicultural society, said it would probably take quite a while for the language most commonly spoken at home to change, as people generally revert to the language that is most comfortable, so the low number of people speaking a non-official language at home compared with the much-larger list of people who have a non-official mother tongue could suggest many of these people have lived here for some time.
For example, 1,100 residents listed German as their mother tongue, but only 100 speak German most often at home.
“There are certain groups of immigrants who have a much longer connection to our community,” said Leather.
The Immigrant Welcome Centre helped about 500 immigrants in the past year and the top four countries are China, South Korea, Phillipines and India – similar to census results.
John Horn, the city’s social planner, said Nanaimo’s growth only comes through immigration, so perhaps many English-speaking people are coming here.
The job market in Nanaimo is tough right now for the age 25-35 bracket, so much of the growth could be retirees from other English-speaking communities in Canada or elsewhere, he added.
Between 2006 and 2011, Nanaimo’s population increased by 5,115 and the largest gains were in the age 50 and over categories.
Horn said it is also important to note there is also a contingent of non-official language speakers that are not counted in the census: between 1,200 and 1,600 international students attend Vancouver Island University every year.
While the number of people with a non-official language as their mother tongue appears to have declined slightly from the 2006 census, the two are not comparable, said Sylvie Lafreniere, a sociology professor at VIU.
In 2006, the language information came from the long-form questionnaire distributed to 20 per cent of the population, but since then, the federal government decided not to continue with the long-term census and the 2011 information comes instead from the short-form questionnaire answered by 100 per cent of the population.
“So now we don’t have that continuation anymore,” she said.
Lafreniere said the order of the questions is different – previously, language came after ethnic origin and place of birth and now it comes after age, sex and marital status – and she thinks the numbers might be slightly higher in the non-official mother tongue category if people had been asked in the same order.
As for the low number of French speakers, Lafreniere said people start to forget the language after high school because it is not used here.
“There is French out there, we do hear it, but it’s a very small community,” she said.