When Mesert Tadesse first arrived in Edmonton from Ethiopia, she didn’t think there would be much of a language barrier. She had learned English before immigrating and was confident integrating wouldn’t be a problem. There was one thing she didn’t account for in the language barrier though.
“I couldn’t understand anyone’s accents!” Tadesse explains. “I called my brothers and told them that I didn’t think I could stay in Canada because everyone was so hard to understand.”
It took Tadesse about six months before she became comfortable with listening to Canadian accents. Even when she got her job with GEF Seniors Housing, she still struggled with understanding what to do, especially in emergency situations. Eventually, she learned that GEF Seniors Housing offers English classes at no cost to its staff. She didn’t hesitate to jump at the opportunity to improve her English skills.
GEF Seniors Housing has been providing the English classes to its staff since 2014. Partial funding for the program is provided to GEF Seniors Housing by the Canada Alberta Job Grant, which provides grants for training programs that focus on improving employment skills.
Angelika Hoffmann used to teach for Edmonton Public Schools and now helps 49 employees with their English skills at six GEF Seniors Housing sites across the city. Hoffman points out that of all the site staff she works with, the group who meets at the Virginia Park lodge every Monday is one of the most culturally diverse.
“We have women from Somalia, Cambodia, Colombia, and Ethiopia in the same class learning to master what can be a confusing Canadian language and culture,” says Hoffmann. “Having such a diverse group connecting, all striving to improve their English and seeing their lives slowly become a tad easier is personally very satisfying.”
Even though the women in the class are all from different parts of the world, the challenges each of them face in mastering English is the same. From pronunciation to understanding the differences between past, present and future tenses, the group works through each challenge together often using examples from what they’ve encountered in their daily lives and on the job with GEF Seniors Housing.
The group at Virginia Park lodge has been getting together for close to four years now and lessons can range from discussing events at work and how to talk about them to tasks that can be more daunting such as booking appointments over the phone.
“One time my assignment in class was to phone for a medical appointment. The lady who answered hung up on me,” recalls Tadesse. “So we went right back to our script to practice some more. When I called back before the end of class the lady understood me and I booked my appointment!”
The most notable change in the students is their increased confidence. They are no longer shy about asking people to repeat things or to use different words so they can understand better. Even booking appointments over the phone has become an easier task for the group members.
“My son is very good at English, but there was one time when he would not call the eye doctor to book an appointment,” recalls Margarita Ortegon, a class member who works at Beverly Place. “Finally, I just took the phone and booked it for him. It took no time at all and when I was done, I looked at my son and said, ‘See! It’s easy!’”
The combination of confidence and the ability to better communicate with other Canadians (including the seniors they work with every day) demonstrate how important these continued English classes are for staff at GEF Seniors Housing. The close-knit dynamic of the group helps students better understand the lessons and how to apply them in day to day situations. For some, the traditional classroom setting wouldn’t be as beneficial as the small, once a week classes during the workday are.
“When Angelika [Hoffmann] is speaking, I can look at her across the table and understand what she means better because I can see the expression on her face. She knows I try hard and am learning.” says Ortegon. “I tell my friends that GEF Seniors Housing gives us free English lessons and they’re shocked. I’ve never worked anywhere else where they would do something like this for their staff.”