Julie Dotsch’s eyes sparkled warmly as she engaged the group of 40 early learning educators, caregivers and librarians. “Let’s think about the biggest needs of newcomer families to Canada.” And so the Saturday workshop began with conversation, reflection, and role-playing to help workshop participants prepare for Syrian children and families arriving to our local programs and schools.
Julie Dotsch is author of "Supporting the Settlement of Young Immigrant Children and Their Families" and has worked with new immigrant children and their families for 23 years, supervising a government-operated immigrant preschool program, conducting research, leading projects and creating resources for newcomer families. In the workshop, Dotsch offered us an opportunity to better understand the perspectives of new immigrants to Canada. She also prompted us to reflect upon our own assumptions and biases in our work with families from backgrounds, cultures and circumstances new to us.
Communication is profoundly important. Educators and immigrant families have much to explain, discover, and express, yet bridging language barriers takes time and intention. Dotsch reminded us that language learning should not be one-sided. Though new immigrants are keen to learn English as rapidly as possible, parents and children should be encouraged to hold onto their home language too. Use of the familiar home language maintains and increases the ability of parents and children to communicate clearly and deeply with one another. This is especially significant during times of stress throughout their entire lives. For immigrant children, use of their home language in their program or classroom nurtures a stronger sense of self, pride in their family and culture, and lays a solid foundation for learning a second language.
But how do we encourage the use of home languages if we don’t understand or speak the family’s language? In “Caring for Syrian Refugee Children: A Program Guide for Welcoming Young Children and their Families” (www.cmascanada.ca) Dotsch highlights the importance of asking parents for their expert guidance in learning how to say and write key words in the child’s first language. Greeting words, words of comfort, yes and no are examples of important words to prioritize learning and using with immigrant children, as well as with the other children in the class.
Dual language books can be invaluable in helping educators, children, and parents share their language and literacy knowledge. Many dual language books can be found on www.languagelizard.com and www.youarespecial.com. Both of these websites feature books in English and Arabic, as well as a variety of other languages. Many and varied picture books and non-fiction books can be found on these websites.
The desire of Canadians to support Syrian refugees is evident through the commitments of our government, agencies, and the extraordinary voluntary efforts of community and faith groups. As we welcome new immigrants to Canada, the strategies and tools we use to strengthen families’ home languages may be one small way we communicate our ongoing compassion.