Talk the Talks: Multilingualism at SFU


SFU is located in one of the most culturally diverse cities in Canada, a mixing bowl of languages and cultures, a place populated with people from across the globe; yet it is still limited by an English-dominant mentality. Obviously foreign students come to Vancouver to live and study, but why is it that SFU has yet to use multilingualism to its full potential?

After speaking with multilingual students at SFU, a few things became abundantly clear. The first thing is that SFU actually has a lot of students actively using two or more languages on a day-to-day basis. The second is that SFU is slowly making strides to include more language-diverse forums.

Through culture and language clubs — like Korean Storm (K.STORM), the Chinese Undergraduate Association (CUA), and Chinese Link — as well as through university programs such as Tandem (a social project that pairs two people up with contrasting language skills to facilitate language learning in a relaxed and social environment), students are welcome to take part in multilingual events and workshops on campus. Any and all linguistic backgrounds welcome.

SFU has a significant international student population. According to SFU’s most recent report, almost 20% of undergraduate students at SFU completed secondary school abroad, and international students represent an additional 17% of the undergraduate population. Further, SFU’s Centre for English Language Learning, Teaching and Research (CELLTR) found that about 60% (of students surveyed) speak at least one additional language at home.

The university has a responsibility to make sure that those students have the same opportunity to learn as everyone else. Often, international students –– especially those who have a feeling of inadequacy in their English-speaking ability –– can feel segregated from the English student population.

SFU students can learn a lot about language and culture from each other, SFU should prioritize this kind of educational experience

Jack, a member of Chinese Link, told The Peak, “I joined the club in my first year. I came from Hong Kong and was looking for a community that could speak Chinese, as I was not very confident in my English skills.” This is a common occurrence, and many clubs cater to students who need a platform for boosting their ability and confidence in speaking English.

Multiple clubs are stepping up to the plate, helping students who want to improve their English feel comfortable, knowing that they are surrounded by peers who understand their situation and needs. Ivy Liang, from CUA, said, “I joined the club because I wanted a platform to get into local clubs and communities. I wanted to practice English, but I was nervous about jumping right in.” Liang further explained that her club, and many others, are welcoming of all students that are interested in learning more about specific languages and cultures. Liang wants to start a program within the club where members can get together in pairs and converse in English and Chinese, in a coffee-date kind of environment.

K.Storm is another club at SFU, invested in spreading Korean traditional and pop culture. John Xing, the club’s vice-president, welcomes everyone. “Members of any ethnicity are welcome to join to meet others with the same interests during events and to engage in fun and social activities.” K.Storm also offers free Korean language classes.

Michael Rogers, the director of cultural ambassadors for the club, explains, “K.S. and its Cultural Ambassador team is dedicated to teaching free Korean classes and including Korean culture in every event that we do. However, K.S. should continue to become a club that not only brings Korea to SFU, but also helps new Koreans learn about Vancouver and all the amazing things our city has to offer.”

Chinese Link is a club whose goal is to bring people with mutual lingual and general interests together, making friends and volunteering. It is one of those clubs that you might see hanging out in the AQ. One of its members said, “If you feel like you would like to learn the language or more about culture, and make some friends in the process, clubs like Chinese Link may be a good place to start.” He recalled one of his friends, who was learning Chinese, joined the club for a couple of years, and by the end of it had significantly improved his competence.

One way in which SFU, specifically, is working towards fostering multilingualism is the implementation of the CELLTR, which provides SFU’s students, teachers, and faculty services that support their teaching and learning in SFU’s multicultural and multilingual environment. Their program Tandem enthusiastically embraces multilingualism as an asset. Using a casual learning environment — free from the stress of a graded, classroom setting — participants are free to progress at their own pace in a fun, low-stakes way.

But Tandem is not only about learning languages. Dr Joel Heng Hartse, a founder of Tandem at SFU, suggests that it can be a place to make friendships across divides that would normally not be crossed. Unlike SFU’s various language and culture clubs, which focus on only one or two languages and cultures, Tandem’s outreach is particularly diverse; thus allowing a wide range of students to come together to teach and learn.

Clubs and active programs are not the only way the community can promote SFU’s multilingualism, however. CJSF, SFU’s radio station, features many language shows including, “Il Sole Italiano” (an Italian language show), and “That Chinese Show.” Another example is The Lyre, the World Literature program’s magazine, which is currently accepting translations to or from English for its upcoming issue. Dr. Heng Hartse, a lecturer of English, affiliated with CELLTR, suggests a new idea for the future: “What about a non-English newspaper at SFU? A Chinese, French, Punjabi newspaper?”

SFU’s language and culture clubs are full of students that want to improve their English and gain knowledge of Canadian culture, as well as celebrate their heritage. Many of SFU’s English-speaking students, similarly, are looking to learn more about other languages and cultures. As members of SFU’s community, we should look towards bringing these people together.  

Think of the collective “we”: We want to learn more about each other’s language and culture; we can mutually benefit from each other’s cultural and linguistic knowledge. So, go out and join a club, join Tandem; learn a language. Embrace a multilingual SFU.