By Lily Kaufmann
Language shapes our understanding of the world; the words we choose define the way we think and feel. As useful as a label or a definition may be to describe the characteristics, needs, and experiences of a group, the diversity and unique qualities of individuals is not captured. Because of this, we must be exceedingly careful with the labels we use.
Refugee. Asylum-seeker. Immigrant. Migrant. Internally displaced person.
Each term aligns with different access to services and spaces and may be connected with different assumptions or pre-conceptions; no matter what word is chosen, the full humanity, experience and characteristics of an individual cannot be described. Because of the weight of labels and their ability to shape our perspectives - as listeners and as speakers - the words we use can reveal our perspectives. A critical examination of our language can reveal the biases we hold and opportunities to be more inclusive with our definitions.
For example, in some countries there has been a shift from the term English as a second language (ESL) to English as an additional language (EAL) to describe English language classes. The term “English as a second language” fails to recognize that many migrants are already bi- or multi-lingual already - English may be a third, fourth, or fifth language. Describing classes as “English as an additional language” recognizes and respects the skills and accomplishments of language learners. The small change of a single word has a powerful impact in shaping the description, and the image, of English language learners.
Another example of label-change is the term newcomer, which has recently become popular in Canada. Newcomer is used as an umbrella term to describe anyone who has recently arrived in Canada. This term is useful because it does not discriminate between or reference individuals’ pre-migration experiences, country of origin or ethnicity. A student coming to Canada to study is a newcomer; a refugee family arriving after years of waiting for UNHCR approval are newcomers; a family member arriving to join their relatives and look for work is newcomer; a person who has been head-hunted to work at a specific company is a newcomer.
By describing the group as a whole, we are able to discuss the different strengths, needs and perspectives that people arriving to Canada bring. Settlement organizations often provide services for “newcomers”, including language classes, resources to learn to navigate healthcare or transport in the city or opportunities for job training/ recertification. In the academic world, researchers may work with newcomers to learn more about the experiences common to new arrivals, such as the challenges and successes of youth entering Canadian schools for the first time and adults taking new jobs or moving into different cities, neighbourhoods and towns.
Newcomer is useful because of its broadness - but it can be harmful for exactly the same reason. By gathering such a diverse group of people under the same label, the specific strengths, needs and experiences of smaller communities are less easily understood. When the term newcomer is used in research and policy, it can camouflage the characteristics of a certain group, which can lead to a misunderstanding of the opportunities, strengths and services that are best suited to a specific group. Statistics become less useful, as they are averaged between a large and diverse groups of people.
For example, language classes would not be necessary to immigrants who speak English or French as a native language. Job recertification programs that are in high demand for economic immigrants are less useful to international students. Trauma-informed programs may be very important to refugees who have survived challenging migration journeys, but may not be helpful to immigrants who moved to Canada voluntarily. Social integration programs and community activities may be very helpful to economic immigrants arriving to Canada alone, but may not be as useful to family-class migrants who are sponsored by families or large groups of people dedicated to helping them navigate their new city.
Language interacts with policy - with funding, with rules and regulations, with benefits and restrictions - labels become opportunities for, or barriers to, accessing different programs and supports. While a label or legal status does not change or describe the individual who carries them, they do alter the spaces in which this person is allowed to enter. The term newcomer represents the balance between specificity and generalization that occurs whenever we want to speak about, think about, understand, or relate to others. At times, it is useful to consider people in groups; this way we can create communities, pool resources and find solidarity in a common experience or understanding of the world. However, it is always important to remember that each member of the larger group is a unique individual with their own story, their own abilities and their own challenges.