Posted on March 10, 2010

Toronto Language Diversity Offers Glimpse of Canada’s Future

Peter Kuitenbrouwer, National Post (Toronto), March 9, 2010

Ever since mass migration began changing the face of Toronto in the late 1960s, the city has grappled with providing service to its citizens in the language they speak.

Rose Lee, the city’s co-ordinator of diversity management, says one in every two Torontonians speaks a language other than English or French. The city does not see this linguistic challenge as a burden, she says, but rather as an opportunity.

“We see racial minorities as a potential talent pool, and we have to tap into that talent pool,” says Ms. Lee. “We have policies in place to provide the best quality of life for all residents regardless of background and to foster a sense of identity.”

In practical terms, what that means is multiple translations. The city’s Multilingual Services division processed 1,629 translations in 41 languages in 2007. In 2008, the division processed 1,716 translations in 40 languages.

This could offer a glimpse of the future for Canada.

According to projections by Statistics Canada, Canada’s population will become increasingly diverse by 2031, with nearly half of Canadians aged 15 and over either foreign born or with at least one foreign-born parent (up to 46% from 39% in 2006.) About 55% of this foreign-born population would be born in Asia.

Under the range of growth scenarios predicted by the statisticians, between 11.4 million and 14.4 million people could belong to visible minority groups by 20131, more than double the 5.3 million visible minorities in 2006.

The projections also suggest that more than three-quarters of the population will have a mother tongue that is neither French nor English–a further challenge to the country’s official languages policies, which funds those languages at the expense of multilingual needs.

Immigrant children learn one of the country’s two official languages relatively easily as children, says Henry Yu, an associate history professor at the University of British Columbia, but then they’re effectively rendered monolingual by years of English- or French-only schooling and the encouragement to leave their mother tongue behind.

Ms. Rose said the city’s multilingual services are a model for other jurisdictions.

“We have delegations coming every year from different parts of Canada and all over the world,” to see how the city grapples with its multicultural face, she said.

But the path to that laudable goal is not without its challenges.

A “Google Translate” button on the City of Toronto web site allows users to translate city information into 51 languages. This mechanical translation can, however, be imprecise. For example, Google translated the English phrase, “Feel at home,” into French as “N’hesitez pas à la maison” which means, roughly, “Don’t stay home.”

A comments section on the city’s web site includes this complaint: “Toronto being the multicultural city, I am surprised to see that among 51 languages Bengali was one of the languages not provided in the website as an option. I know many immigrants from Bangladesh who come and find themselves isolated in the Toronto website, so adding Bengali language option would be of a great help.”

Another user writes, “Why not in Tamil language? You are providing services for very less population than Tamils but not in Tamil where as more than 300,000 Tamils live in Toronto.”

Toronto has not measured satisfaction with its translation efforts, but Ms. Lee suggested that more recent immigrants may have less need for translation.

“More than half the immigrants arriving in the City of Toronto are foreign-trained professionals,” she said. “They bring with them language skills.”

Toronto several years ago began centralizing all customer service calls through its 3-1-1 service. Plagued with delays and cost overruns, the service launched in September, and boasts on its web site that callers can receive service in 180 languages.

Toronto’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength;” still, despite the rich diversity of foreign language speakers in Toronto, the city has not hired anyone internally to speak to its residents in foreign languages. Instead, 3-1-1 patches through foreign language calls to Language Line Services, in Monterey, California, whose translators help the call centre worker answer the caller’s questions.

Patricia Macdonell, manager of 3-1-1, said simply that Language Line was the “successful bidder” for a five year deal to provide translation for 3-1-1 and Public Health, among other departments. She does not know how many times 3-1-1 used translators, and does not know the cost of the per-minute service.