The Ultimate Language Hack: Highlights from the Language Policy Hackathon

By: Jack Xu


By Sanah Matadar, Social Media Coordinator

25 percent. The figure marks the near percentage of working Canadian immigrants in 2016. The following year, 60 percent of the country’s increase in employment was from immigrants joining the work force. So to anyone who genuinely believes that immigrants should not be welcomed into Canadian society, we must ask, what would we do without them?

As for those who support migration to Canada, and who believe in it, not only as a benefit to Canadians and Canadian communities by way of contributing to the nation’s economy, but who believe in it on a more empathetic level, that these newcomers are here for a chance to improve their lives; even these people must be asked questions. Specifically, what are we doing for these newcomers, to help them, not by forcing them to assimilate and conform to Canadian culture, but by providing ways to meaningfully participate and enjoy their new lives? What can we do for them? For instance, are these new immigrants adequately aware of their labour rights? Do they know where to go to access support services or access any relevant critical information? Do they fully comprehend the local news and media that surrounds them on the daily, from TV news reports, to newspaper stories?

These were among the many questions asked on Monday’s Language Policy Hackathon, held by MCIS Language Solutions, in partnership with the Policy Innovation Initiative (Pii) of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. An invite-only event, participants included MCIS staff, language professionals (translators and interpreters), community organizations and stakeholders, policymakers-in-training and Munk School students.

Dubbed #languagehack, the event began with welcome addresses from MCIS Executive Director, Latha Sukumar, and Pii Research Director, Niha Shahzad. Indigenous teacher and social worker, Elder Verne Ross, then led the group of over 50 participants in an opening prayer. Introductions concluded with a keynote speech from critically-acclaimed documentary filmmaker, OCAD professor, and current NDP candidate for Toronto-Danforth, Min Sook Lee. In her speech, Min Sook touched on her own challenges growing up as a South Korean immigrant in Toronto, and spoke of the importance of speaking up, even when it is scary, and against your culture’s norms. She outlined her bumpy journey to discovering her own political voice, and why she believes in the vitality of giving a voice to vulnerable populations. As a child, Ms. Lee made the choice to speak out and share stories, arguing that if she stayed silent, then her issues would not matter.

Following a presentation on the research done by Pii students on Canadian language policy, the groups took part in a journey-mapping workshop, facilitated by Rajesh Sankat, of Ontario’s Cabinet Office. As part of the workshop, groups were given proto-personas of individuals in a driving with cannabis scenario, and asked to develop values for these personas. They were then led into mapping journeys for their personas, while identifying opportunities where policies could intervene and help.

Following a lunch break, participants put the skills developed through the morning’s activities to work, this time creating and developing their own personas surrounding language policy issues. Each group was given an area of focus; these included topics of immigration, news & media, law enforcement, health, education, translation & interpretation, and labour. Hackathon participants were eager to unleash their creativity, with groups excitedly adding layers upon layers to their personas; from a young refugee, wanting to become involved with politics and volunteer for a local candidate, but not knowing enough English to understand Canada’s election system, to a newcomer interpreter who was sent home from court because they lacked the proper certification, to a young boy who tried hiding his mental illness from his family for cultural reasons, only to have his teacher inform his parents of his struggles, and on and on. Groups were then instructed to go through the journey-mapping process a final time, suggesting potential policy solutions to the issues they had created for their personas. The day ended with individuals going around, sharing and reviewing the innovative policy solutions of other groups, as well as providing feedback.

The Language Policy Hackathon was a unique opportunity for collaboration, where groups of individuals with different expertise – some who had only just met that day – were asked to come up with and develop ideas through a process that policymakers spend months, and sometimes even years on.

MCIS would like to thank all of the participants who joined us, despite the frigid morning and snowstorm. A notable thank you to the interpreters and translators who represented MCIS, as well as our Directors and Managers who joined us for the day; we are grateful for your support throughout the entire planning and implementation process, and very happy that you came and participated. Thank you also to the wonderful students from Pii, for all the work and effort you put into the research and logistics of the event, and for being amazing partners.

Findings from the Language Policy Hackathon will be compiled into one final report, which will be made available to the public. Follow MCIS and Pii to stay up to date on details regarding its publication and release.

Finally, if you’d like to see more specific highlights from the event, the Hackathon was live tweeted! Follow @MCISLanguages on Twitter, and check out #languagehack.

Thank you to Richard Dang for photographing the event. To see more of Richard’s work, please click here.