When Mesert first arrived in Edmonton from Ethiopia, she didn’t think there would be much of a language barrier. She had learned English before immigrating and was confident integrating wouldn’t be a problem. There was one thing she didn’t account for in the language barrier though.
“I couldn’t understand anyone’s accents!” Mesert explains. “I called my brothers and told them that I didn’t think I could stay in Canada because everyone was so hard to understand.”
It took Masert about six months before she became comfortable with listening to Canadian accents. Even when she got her job with GEF Seniors Housing, she still struggled with understanding what to do, especially in emergency situations. Eventually, she learned that GEF Seniors Housing offers English classes at no cost to its staff. She didn’t hesitate to jump at the opportunity to improve her English skills.
GEF Seniors Housing has been providing the English classes to its staff since 2014. Partial funding for the program is provided to GEF Seniors Housing by the Canada Alberta Job Grant, which provides grants for training programs that focus on improving employment skills.
Miss Hofman used to teach for Edmonton Public Schools and now helps 49 employees with their English skills at six GEF Seniors Housing sites across the city. Hofman points out that of all the site staff she works with, the group who meets at the Virginia Park lodge every Monday is one of the most culturally diverse.
“We have women from Somalia, Cambodia, Colombia, and Ethiopia in the same class learning to master what can be a confusing Canadian language and culture,” says Hofman. “Having such a diverse group connecting, all striving to improve their English and seeing their lives slowly become a tad easier is personally very satisfying.”
Even though the women in the class are all from different parts of the world, the challenges each of them face in mastering English is the same. From pronunciation to understanding the differences between past, present and future tenses, the group works through each challenge together often using examples from what they’ve encountered in their daily lives and on the job with GEF Seniors Housing.
The group at Virginia Park lodge has been getting together for close to four years now and lessons can range from discussing events at work and how to talk about them to tasks that can be more daunting such as booking appointments over the phone.
“One time my assignment in class was to phone for a medical appointment. The lady who answered hung up on me,” recalls Mesert. “So we went right back to our script to practice some more. When I called back before the end of class the lady understood me and I booked my appointment!”
The most notable change in the students is their increased confidence. They are no longer shy about asking people to repeat things or to use different words so they can understand better. Even booking appointments over the phone has become an easier task for the group members.
“My son is very good at English, but there was one time when he would not call the eye doctor to book an appointment,” recalls Marta, a class member who works at Beverly Place. “Finally, I just took the phone and booked it for him. It took no time at all and when I was done, I looked at my son and said, ‘See! It’s easy!’”
The combination of confidence and the ability to better communicate with other Canadians (including the seniors they work with every day) demonstrate how important these continued English classes are for staff at GEF Seniors Housing. The close-knit dynamic of the group helps students better understand the lessons and how to apply them in day to day situations. For some, the traditional classroom setting wouldn’t be as beneficial as the small, once a week classes during the workday are.
“When Miss Hofman is speaking, I can look at her across the table and understand what she means better because I can see the expression on her face. She knows I try hard and am learning.” says Marta. “I tell my friends that GEF Seniors Housing gives us free English lessons and they’re shocked. I’ve never worked anywhere else where they would do something like this for their staff.”
Miss Hofman officially retired from teaching grades one to 12 in Edmonton’s German Bilingual and regular program schools in the summer of 2013, but her teaching career didn’t. She’s taking her experience from teaching in schools and teaching English classes in Germany and applying it in helping some of GEF Seniors Housing’s staff improve their English. As Hofman explains, teaching these hard working individuals who spend their days making the lives of seniors living in Edmonton better is vastly different from much of the teaching she did in the past.
“These classes are almost entirely student driven,” says Hofman. “I always put together a class plan, but whatever the students need always comes first.”
The idea of teaching English to members of GEF Seniors Housing’s staff who are looking for the help started when Hofman initially met the staff during customer service courses. The courses had gone so well that she was offered an opportunity to also teach some health and safety courses. She agreed on the condition that she could also start teaching English classes, something she noted that many staff could benefit a great deal from.
“I grew up in Edmonton, but my first language is German,” explains Hofman. “I didn’t begin to speak English until grade one. I understand what it’s like to be in those situations where you don’t understand what’s going on and you can’t ask for what you need because of the language barrier. So I empathize a lot with the staff members who are working with people every day but don’t necessarily fully understand the language.”
Hofman explains that one of the biggest success factors she’s noticed with the classes, which she’s been teaching for three years across five GEF Seniors Housing sites, is that the class sizes are small. She notes that some classes have upwards of 10 people in them while others have only two officially registered students. The classes often focus on real world examples that the students encounter during their work day or even out in the community. Hoffman points out that some of the real world examples can be very personal for the students in the class.
“I’ve worked with students to pass the Canadian citizenship exam, I’ve helped students prep questions to be asking their doctors, I even sat on the phone with one student while she tried to book a medical appointment,” says Hofman. “The students will sometimes come to the class asking about something and we will spend that class going over things like brochures that can benefit their health. When they can apply what they’re learning, it sticks with them better.”
The students echo Hofman’s view about the real world application of her classes. Though most of the time the classes are full of laughter and jokes, some of the exercises can even bring on a few tears.
“We were working on an assignment where we had to use past tense,” says Cindy, a Dining Room Attendant. “So we wrote about a game we enjoyed playing in our childhood and some of us wound up crying. Sharing these personal experiences help this be more than just a class. We’re close here and it’s a lot of bonding for us.”
For the staff, having English classes offered by GEF Seniors Housing at no extra cost to them means improving their communication skills with the people they work with, the residents and tenants who live in the buildings, and to help them fully adjust to their new homes. They’re able to access something that previously was only available in formal classrooms, which many of them found intimidating.
“I’m very proud that GEF is able to give us these classes,” says Rose, a Dining Room Supervisor. “Not every company would do something like this for their staff. We don’t mind being corrected and we’re not embarrassed when we make a mistake because we’re always learning and improving. We’re very lucky that we’re being given these classes.”
Hofman reflects on many of the students who have come through her English classes and notes that so much of the success isn’t just found in the pronunciation or proper use of grammar, but comes in the new level of confidence that so many of the staff are showing.
“When they first came into the class, some were afraid their English wasn’t good enough, others were scared of failure,” says Hofman. “They do so much to teach themselves. All I’ve done is organize the space and the time and they do all of the hard work and that has helped make such a huge difference.”