Language, Religion and Immigrant Settlement: An Ethnography

I found that socio-economic inclusion at the institutional level led to learning English and Cantonese, rather than language learning leading to socio-economic inclusion; that old-timers’ actions and beliefs about languages shaped individual immigrants’ experiences and identities in important ways; and finally, that a large number of Chinese immigrants have converted to evangelical Christianity in their Canadian settlement process.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Huamei Han

What's Proposed

In 1967, the Canadian government abandoned race-based immigration policy and started selecting educated and skilled immigrants who could potentially contribute to the Canadian economy. An increasing number of immigrants from non-traditional source countries, countries other than Western and Northern Europe and the United States, have since arrived.

In 1995, Canada increased the quota for skilled immigrants. However, statistics show that immigrants’ earnings have deteriorated steadily since the late 1960s, albeit only among immigrants from non-traditional source countries, and particularly among those from Asia and Africa (Aydemir & Skuterud, 2004). Immigrants who arrived in Canada in the 1990s earned about 30% less than the native population, while a much wider wage gap has been documented in the United States and a similar trend is found in Sweden, Australia, Denmark and Germany (Walters, Phythian, & Anisef, 2006).

In Canada, many scholars and government officials contend that immigrants’ language problems are the major obstacle preventing their economic integration, that immigration selection policies and practices need to be fixed to select immigrants with better command of an official language (in the present case, English); that immigrants are solely responsible for improving their English before or right after their arrival, which would automatically lead to employment and subsequent integration into the larger society.

How This Project is Carried Out

The context of immigration and the widely held views on the role of language learning with respect to immigrant settlement and integration motivated a research project that I undertook in Toronto from 2002 to 2006. While quantitative studies can be generalized to the larger populations numerically in terms of various trends, qualitative studies are more apt at probing the how and why questions and to make theoretical generalizations. Ethnographic studies focusing on individuals across various settings and over a long stretch of time can be particularly important for studies pertaining to language learning, which does not occur overnight or in classrooms only.

Specifically, in an ethnographic case study, I shadowed five focal participants, two women and three men, all skilled immigrants from Mainland China in Toronto, across various settings, for four years. This was supplemented by 1) observations and interviews with over 20 secondary participants, i.e., the focal participants’ friends, teachers, supervisors, pastors and church leaders who had influenced their settlement to various degrees; and 2) the collection and analysis of relevant discussions in mainstream as well as minority mass media, in both traditional hardcopy and electronic format.

Where to Learn More

Han, H. (2009). Institutionalized inclusion: A case study on support for immigrants in English learning. TESOL Quarterly. 43(4): 643-668.

Depicting a variety of inclusive practices at a Mandarin-English bilingual church in Toronto, this paper provides pedagogical approaches that front-line classroom teachers can adopt in organizing class-wide activities and inter-personal interactions that would support all students, including ESL students of minority background, to accumulate social and linguistic capital. The concept of organizing “off stage” preparation or rehearsal to facilitate successful “onstage” performance should be helpful to everybody working with ESL students, young and old.

Han, H. (2011). Inclusion through multilingual institutional policies and practices: A case study of a minority church. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 14(4): 383-398.

This paper provides a theoretical argument with practical implications for building more inclusive institutions through multilingual policies and practices – “institutions” can be any unit comprising two or more individuals, including a family, a classroom, a homework club, a community organization, a school, or a workplace of any size. It emphasizes adopting a more flexible and pragmatic attitude toward multiple languages at the institutional level, allowing different degrees of codeswitching in various events, and selecting speakers on merits beyond pure linguistic measures.

Han, H. (2011). “Love your China” and evangelize: Religion, nationalism and racism in immigrant settlement in Canada. Ethnography and Education. 6 (1): 59-77.

This paper analyzes the shared understandings of race and national identity, and the shared experience of institutionalized discrimination in everyday life in the transnational Chinese Evangelical Christian community based in Toronto. I suggest that sanctioned and enabled by racism and Canadian banal nationalism, or everyday nationalism against immigrants, structural discrimination against racialized minority immigrants contributes to difficulties they experience in settlement. I argue that, in this context, Christian evangelism offers many Chinese immigrants an alternative frame to understand the meaning and purpose of immigration and of living as racialized immigrants in Canada.

Han, H. (In press-2012). Becoming a “new immigrant” in Canada: How language matters, or not. Journal of Identity Language and Education. 11(3)

This paper provides a case study of how it is not necessarily that immigrants’ lack of proficiency in English, but rather institutions exploiting their vulnerability based on multiple social categorizations, that is at the root of their everyday struggles. The paper first traces the lived settlement experiences of a young man from Mainland China in Canada to demonstrate how he gradually became an “immigrant” in the folk sense of the term, i.e., racialized minorities who moved from Third- to First-World countries as adults, who do not speak fluent English and who occupy lower positions in the occupational hierarchy. It then highlights a dispute over an apartment lease to illustrate how he came to understand that language, in the form of various texts and everyday interactions, constitutes an important terrain where socioeconomic inequality and immigrant identity are reproduced.