January 24, 2013
I meet Siavash in the small lunch room just off the Birch Cafeteria late on a busy weekday afternoon at Capilano University. Despite it being a busy semester, he seems eager to be interviewed about his experiences in the English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program at Cap. The gregarious 25-year old Iranian immigrant came with his family to Canada in 2006 after six years of waiting for his documents to be processed by Immigration Canada, and he was nervous when he moved to North Vancouver, especially because he wasn’t sure his English abilities would be adequate to survive here. This fact strikes me as hard to believe since the English I hear coming out of Siavash’s mouth is quite fluent, nearly native-like. He is also very confident.
He recalls the difficulties he had when he first moved to Canada.
“In fact, I didn’t know much,” Siavash said. “My English skills were limited to ordering in a fast food restaurant just by pointing at the numbers. To modify the meal, like get it without bacon, I wasn’t able to make those requests because I couldn’t express myself. I just had to take what they gave me.”
That’s when Siavash started Capilano’s EAP Level 4, the program’s lowest level (low intermediate).
“I recall having Milica as a teacher in Level 4, and to help us remember her name, she said, ‘Just remember the word pizza; it rhymes with Milica!’,” Siavash said.
He successfully completed Level 4 and continued on to Levels 5 and 6, successfully completing those programs as well.
“Tony and Doug also stood out for me,” Siavash said. “Tony was so kind as a reading teacher. He would work hard to find interesting topics for us. When I see him on campus today, we still hug and shake hands. And then there’s Doug. He was strict at times, but he did it because he cared for us and wanted to learn.”
It was at Levels 6 and 7 where Siavash says he gained much more confidence in using English because it was at the upper levels where he learned that it was okay to make mistakes, he said.
“During the [EAP], I was afraid people would make fun of my accent, but then I learned to start a conversation by saying, ‘Hey, I’m not the best English speaker,’ and that was an ice breaker that let me open myself up,” Siavash said. “From there I gained more confidence to participate in class and get better marks.”
Being less shy in class allowed Siavash to start interacting with classmates and with his instructors, and because of that, he was able to get down to the business of wrestling with English grammar. When I ask him what advice he would give to ESL students in dealing with the structure of English, he points toward reading.
“It goes back to reading,” Siavash said. “As I read more, I feel I’m getting more comfortable, and it becomes natural to make your sentences sound logical and structurally right. I would suggest that [ESL students] get into the habit of reading. They should find topics where they are passionate. Then just read 5 or 10 or 15 minutes a day. It becomes a habit. There is no other way than practicing. You don’t have the genes built in. You have to gain it.”
Siavash wasn’t always an avid reader of English.
“To be honest, I hated reading,” he said. “I used to only read school materials, but now I’m changing. I read even more non-school materials now. I download interesting topics and read them during my 30-minute trip to and from school every day.”
After successfully completing EAP’s capstone course, ESLF 080, Siavash continued on in Capilano’s Business Administration program and is currently majoring in international business.
“It was still hard to communicate with people even after Level 8,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to get comfortable with English. When I first started the business program, I wasn’t so involved because it requires lots of participation and communication. You have to be self-confident enough to open up to people. Fortunately, Capilano gives you enough experience and practice to open up.”
In fact, Siavash said that only after he began volunteering at Lions Gate Hospital, did he finally start to feel fully comfortable with his communication abilities in English.
“When I realized I could use what I had been learning through helping senior citizens, it made me more motivated to pay attention in school,” he said.
This leads to some advice Siavash has the about the importance of volunteering in the community to improve English skills.
“Get involved in community activities to implement what you’ve been taught in school,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good your English is. Everyone in Canada has an expectation of meeting a second language speaker, but they still expect you to get involved.”
Finally, Siavash points out that there is one other advantage to interacting with Canadians rather than with members of his own ethnic group: sharing your own individual identity along with information about your cultural background.
“People were actually interested in knowing my culture’s food, table manners, etc,” he said. “I didn’t try to hide it. Just be yourself...and you can make a new life here because Canadians show interest.”