New collection of stories helps adult newcomers learn English in a meaningful way

A new collection of stories written by newcomers for newcomers aims to help adults learning English in Canada by providing them with written materials that resonate with their lived experiences.

The Stories of Us is a compilation of 60 stories in 15 different languages with side-by-side English translations written by newcomers from diverse countries who have settled across Canada.

“In this so-called country of Canada, there is a narrative and pressure to be perfect at English in order to succeed and find belonging,” says Jennifer Chan, CEO of the nonprofit group, the Department of Imaginary Affairs.

“The Stories of Us is our artifact of the future that demonstrates that learning English might unify us in some ways, but that our individual stories and culture can also be preserved and shared in our home languages.”

She said adult newcomers learning English in Canada struggle to find relevant materials to read. In 2016, Chan heard stories from two English as a Second Language teachers about librarians offering books to adults that were written by native English speakers using reading styles meant for young children. She was inspired to create a story collection to address this gap.

The 2021 census results indicate that almost one-quarter of Canada’s population are landed immigrants or permanent residents, the largest percentage since 1867. And 12.7 per cent of Canadians speak a language other than English or French most often at home, an increase of five per cent since 1991.

Chan said the Stories of Us project, which preceded the published magazine, aimed to amplify Canada’s strength of recognizing individual identities by helping to preserve native languages, as well as increasing access to English language learning — a necessity for newcomers to integrate into Canadian society.

Empowering newcomers

Mathura Mahendren, program manager with the Toronto-based nonprofit, said in a multimedia tribute on youtube that the program provided “a safe, transitional space for newcomers to Canada to construct and reconstruct their journey after the life-altering event that is immigration.”

She said contributors could “honour our mother tongues on par with the colonizer’s language,” while sharing personal stories with strangers as well as people they already know. The process also provided a healing sense of validation for the time spent “unpacking” these stories.

Deepali Jadhav had been in Canada for two years when she was introduced to the Stories of Us program by her manager at the YWCA JUMP in Scarborough. It was the first time she’d had the opportunity to reflect on her journey. Both a workshop participant and facilitator, Jadhav said the experience reminded her of a Maya Angelou quote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

In her view, the workshops “empower people to talk about themselves, help them acknowledge their losses, celebrate their achievements and keep them moving forward on the road they have taken.”

Chan said the program was collaboratively designed involving engagement with multiple stakeholders — newcomers, English learning teachers, job counsellors, settlement workers and care workers — each of whose insights made a valuable contribution.

In a video shared as part of The Stories of Us time capsule, one of the contributing storytellers, Ha Le, said that her ESL class was invited to use stories on the Department of Imaginary Affairs’ website as learning material, but she couldn’t find a story in Vietnamese.

Ha Le wanted to create one to ensure other Vietnamese speakers had something to draw on, so Mahendran visited the class to capture her story.

“I somehow understand myself better [now],” said Ha Le. She said she is grateful for the opportunity to learn about other newcomers through these stories.

“Even though we come from different countries with different cultures and backgrounds, I can say that I understand them very well, about how they feel when they left their home country and set up their new life here,” she said.

Newcomer stories collected through The Stories of Us initiative are written in the contributor’s native language and translated into English by volunteers. Multiple versions are created at various levels of English comprehension according to Canadian Language benchmark standards. The stories are then added to the project’s online ESL library for both teachers and students to access by downloading or printing them.

A key partner enabling the publication of the printed story collection was Living Hyphen, a community exploring the experiences of hyphenated Canadians through a magazine, podcast, and cultural programming. Founder and editor, Justine Abigail Yu, served as editor of The Stories of Us magazine, selecting the stories and collaborating with graphic designer, Kathleen Ubias, and five artist illustrators: Meegan Lim, Christie Carriere, Angela Aujla, Melissa Mathieu, and Maria Pineros.

The current version of the Department of Imaginary Affairs’ library of stories is text-based, but Chan said the goal is for future versions to be more accessible with audio, visual and interactive components. “The impact we imagine for the future is that every single person who comes to call this country home, even temporarily, and would like to learn English may do so with stories that are relevant and relatable to them from newcomers.”

Daniela Cohen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, New Canadian Media