Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Seniors learning English at the Mosaic centre are now part of a choir that performs for the elderly in Vancouver.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

”Row, row, row your boat. Gently down the stream ... ” Tina Dai, along with several dozen immigrant seniors, is warming up for a singing performance in a Vancouver care home for the elderly. The singers wear bright smiles, moving their elbows up and down like they’re rowing. Even just for practice, none of these performers slacks off.

The choir opened the show with a few songs and actions designed to engage the audience, residents at Villa Cathay Care Home in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The frail audience, including some residents with dementia, all sitting in wheelchairs, could barely move. Even so, one of them tried to wave her hand along with the beat, while another touched her head, nose and mouth, arduously following the movements of the singers.

But if the audience was benefiting from the performance, so were the performers. The choir, established in April through the immigrant service organization Mosaic, is composed of immigrant seniors who have a shared love of learning English through music. So far, it has attracted about 30 members originally from China, Congo, Eritrea and India, at the average age of 70.

Earlier this year, a number of high-profile racist videos shot in British Columbia surfaced online, showing angry white people demanding that non-white residents speak English. But like the seniors in the choir, including Ms. Dai, many immigrants in Canada are making huge efforts to acquire the language in their new country, even in their later lives.

Ms. Dai emigrated from Shanghai, China, to Canada in 1996. Picking up a second language for the then-working mother, who was in her 40s, wasn’t easy. After taking some English-as-second-language classes and passing the citizenship exam, Ms. Dai devoted most of her time and energy to raising her children and taking care of her family. Her English was never as good as she wanted it to be.

However, after Ms. Dai retired last year, she said she has become an almost “full-time student” in different clubs at Mosaic, strengthening her English through speaking and listening, and seeking to integrate into a more multicultural community.

“But now we are in an English-speaking country. [We] are not in China,” the 66-year-old said. “And you need to know its official language so that you can integrate into a more diverse society and make more friends.”

While the task of learning English can be daunting for most new immigrants, it’s especially challenging for older Canadians.

Natalia Balyasnikova, a PhD candidate in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia, said cognitive functioning can decline as humans age, presenting challenges for language learning in some domains such as processing the meaning of words, immediate word retrieval or complex sentence comprehension.

But music can be a potent tool to assist these seniors to overcome some of those barriers.

Andrea Montgomery Di Marco, who has been teaching English for more than a decade and is now the instructor of the Mosaic choir, said music allows the choristers to drop their inhibitions.

“A lot of the struggle, I would say with the seniors, is a lot of it is confidence,” she said. “But they’re confident when they sing.”

Ms. Montgomery Di Marco said when she first started teaching seniors English, she hadn’t realized how much repetition they would need.

“A couple of them said to me, ‘Slow, slow.’ They said, ‘We’re getting old; we don’t remember,‘ “ she noted, laughing.

But after leading the choir for more than eight months, the two-hour practices with these students has become her weekly highlight. “I just have fun. I think they do, too.”

When it comes to song choices, Ms. Montgomery Di Marco started with popular children’s songs as they are easy, full of activities and common to Canadians. Row Row Row Your Boat is now the warmup routine for the choir.

Besides English songs, the class sometimes works on pieces rich in Canadian content, including Indigenous hymns and French-Canadian standards such as Alouette.

Choosing French songs was intentional. In the class, two women originally from Congo speak French as their second language.

Ms. Montgomery Di Marco said it took about two to three weeks for the choir to learn a song back in the spring, but now, she noted, the time is “easily cut in half.“

“I feel like we could probably take on almost anything right now.”

Alouette, You Raise Me Up, Moon River … the songs rolled on. When the choir finished the show at Villa Cathay Care Home, it was almost 4 p.m. Ms. Dai and some of her fellow choir members had been there since the morning to sing on different floors of the home. They were tired. But Ms. Dai said seeing the smiles of those elders and giving back to society led to a sense of fulfilment.

“The elders in Canada need to be cared [for],” she said. ”I was tired, but spiritually, I was still happy and excited.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe