Posted on March 10, 2009

Newcomers’ Languages Are a Valuable Resource

Joe Fiorito, The Star (Toronto), March 9, 2009

Altaf Qadeer teaches at Brookview Middle School, in the north end of the city. Brookview is a hive of scholastic innovation; Altaf teaches language, math and social studies.

He came here from Pakistan 20 years or so ago, and therefore he is one of the happy exceptions–he was trained as a teacher in Pakistan, and he is working here in his profession.

We met the other day at that Canadian Experience conference. I attended out of curiosity. He was there because he knows the problems new Canadians face, and so he got involved in the planning of the conference.

Altaf also has a nifty idea.

He said, “During the planning of the conference, one of our colleagues had just been in a taxi, and the taxi driver was talking about semiotics; they had a very impressive conversation.

“My colleague asked how it was that the driver knew so much. The driver said he had a PhD in semiotics, and he was driving a cab because he couldn’t work in a Canadian university, because of the language barrier.”

For Altaf, the penny dropped.

“I started thinking there should be some way to use that talent. We bring a lot of immigrants who are very talented. Perhaps, if our universities had some flexibility it would be useful.”

Useful, how?

“I’m saying that highly educated people might come into our universities, perhaps as guest lecturers, to get some experience.”


“There could be a satellite campus or something Internet-based, so people could teach in their first language.”

Sort of like the Learning Annex, but with multilingual breadth and intellectual depth. You see how an agile mind works?

He said, “There could be courses for Canadians who want to learn in Hindi, or there could be courses for people back home who want to study with someone who is already here; we could link with universities in other countries and do some collaboration.”


Altaf led a little study session at the conference, and he threw this idea up for discussion.

He said, “For example, there was a Russian couple with a background in literature, and a lady from Egypt who had a background in arts education in Arabic.”

You begin to get the picture.

“The idea is in a very nascent stage. We did not have a thorough discussion.”

There wasn’t enough time. But conjure with him for a moment:

“Perhaps it could involve study over the Internet; if we opened a virtual university, people who were aiming to come to Canada would have a better chance when they got here.”

I don’t know about the notion of virtual university–I don’t have a university education, real or virtual–but I do know there are all sorts of community centres all over town where lectures might be given and where classes might be held.

Altaf was getting warmed up as his coffee cooled. He said, “I have a friend, a composer who is thinking about transcribing ‘O Canada’ for traditional South Asian instruments; I haven’t asked him, but he is the kind of person who might offer courses. His languages are Urdu and Hindi.

“And I know a famous Urdu poet. There could be all kinds of cultural studies.

“You know, I have colleagues who speak Farsi, they can teach in that language.

“There could be many courses in various languages, at an advanced level, for people who want cultural studies.”

Okay, so what’s it going to take to pull this off?

Altaf said, “We need a meeting of stakeholders, academics, community leaders, the public.”

I don’t know about you, but I find the possibilities breathtaking.