English at Work program speaks volumes at Misercorida Health Centre

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Tuyet Lam was rarely alone while working at Misericordia Health Centre, but there were times she felt very lonely.

That’s not surprising, considering Lam arrived in Winnipeg from Vietnam on April 17, 1980 and began working in Misericordia’s housekeeping department four days later.

Only able to speak a few words of English and unable to read or write, it was tough to adjust to a new country and new job. “Sometimes I was so shy,” Lam recalls.“I always sat in the corner by myself. I didn’t want to speak to anybody.”

That’s no longer the case, thanks to Misericordia’s English at Work program.

Lam has been attending English at Work classes for four years and it’s improved her language skills and job performance. More importantly, though, it’s boosted her confidence, at work and at home.

“After joining the class, I was getting better at reading and speaking,” Lam says with a wide smile. “Before I could not speak with Misericordia’s residents, but since I joined the class I’m available to speak to everyone.”

Misericordia has employed immigrants for decades, beginning with Lam and two other single Vietnamese women who were sponsored by the health facility’s founding Sisters.

When the centre was contacted in 2006 about becoming involved with the federal government’s English at Work initiative, it seemed to be a perfect fit. And that’s what it’s turned out to be.

The voluntary program involves 15 Misericordia employees who regularly attend hour-long classes twice a week. A half hour of each class is paid time; the other half hour is volunteered by the students.

“The participants within the program, they’ve just blossomed,” says Sharon Stanley, Misericordia’s director of human resources.” They’re more forthcoming with having an exchange of information or just a conversation. They’re more involved on their units or in their departments. Skills-wise, they understand more about their positions. They can read documents better, they can have input into decisions being made.”

Some of the material covered by English at Work teacher Gail Leylek directly relates to employees’ jobs. That includes explaining job sheets in clear, plain language, as well as workplace safety information.

The Winnipeg Health Region recently introduced a Respectful Workplace campaign and its manuals and posters have become part of classroom exercises.

“A lot relates to self-confidence — respect, asking for clarification, not being afraid to ask people to speak slowly (and knowing that) if you don’t understand, you won’t lose your job,” Leylek says. Because English is their second language or third language or fifth language, they need the confidence to be able to ask questions on the job and not feel that they are being looked down upon.”

Her students’ native languages include Filipino, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Polish, Arabic and African dialects.

Leylek’s background helps her connect with her students. She’s been an English as a Second Language teacher for 17 of the 25 years she’s lived in Winnipeg. Prior to that, she also taught in Nigeria and Turkey.

Her students do role-playing and practical activities, including writing incident reports, using a computer and pretending to leave phone messages with their supervisors to let them know they won’t be at work because they’re ill.

Some supervisors had told Leylek they were receiving hang-ups because employees weren’t confident about leaving messages. They’d keep calling until someone answered, often late into a shift.

Leylek also incorporates fun activities such as crossword puzzles and bingo, but not your typical bingo with numbers. Instead of calling out numbers, a student does a gesture and others have to guess what it means. “In many countries, gestures and body language are different,” Leylek says.” If I gave you the thumbs up, it means one thing to you, but if I gave the thumbs up to a woman in Afghanistan, it would be like giving her the third finger.”

Lam is also paired up with a Misericordia staff member who acts as a mentor during weekly get-togethers. Leylek proudly points out the strides Lam and other students have made. “Every lesson, we have what’s called journals and they write me a little letter,” Leylek says. “At first, (Lam) struggled. Now she’s telling me what’s new in her life or what’s happening in her life. She’s doing a good job.”

Lam’s improvements have impacted her home life, too. She has three daughters in university who are fluent in English, although their first language is Vietnamese. She’s now able to use some English to talk to them and their friends and is also confident enough to go grocery shopping without asking a daughter or her husband to go along.

“I can understand what my kids say at home, what they want,” Lam proudly says. “I can read now and do some writing. A little bit, not much. But when people talk to me, I can understand what they are telling me. And they can understand me now.”