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How Fashion Helped me Break Canada’s Language Barrier as an Immigrant

In 2006, about 6,000 kilometres away from Toronto, a five-year-old girl stumbled into her mother’s tall stiletto boots, wearing a faux fur jacket rim she had unbuttoned from her grandmother’s winter coat. A year later, she hopped off a plane sporting a purple Reebok crossbody bag, oblivious to the foreign language that bounced through her ears.

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve always had a taste for the extravagant. Despite my move to Canada leaving me utterly wordless in the presence of the English language, I was able to find another common language with kids my age: fashion.

While I can’t recall the street I lived on in St. Petersburg, the click-clacking of my little-heeled shoes––which were a deep violet colour and adorned with little green gemstones––is ingrained in my memory. My parents always recalled that as a kid, whenever I got the chance to pick out something for myself – be it a snack from the food court or a new hat, my eye always happened to fall on the most expensive commodity. 

Of course, a six-year old’s fashion dialect is not something of eloquence. But by picking out my own outfits for school, adorning my Crocs with all sorts of charms and carefully placing barrettes in my hair, I was able to find a common ground with the kids in my class. They’d compliment my hair clip, so I’d smile and point to their bracelet. And by the phenomenon that is the children’s vernacular, this translated into a seat at the lunch table or a game of tag during recess. 

My fashion dialect was not congested with words of haute couture and hemlines. But the simplicity of visual communication through my choice of style allowed me to surpass the language barriers of a classroom where I was the only ESL (English as a second language) student. In fact, my sister and I were the only two ESL students in a school of around 300. 

I’m 20 now. While I’m happy to report that I’m fluent in English, fashion has remained an important language in my life. If it could transcend the barriers of a classroom full of six-year-olds who had no idea who Coco Chanel was, I’m quite confident in its ability to help me find a common ground in any setting.

Originally from Russia but Toronto-based for the past 14 years, Alina is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University. From fashion to politics, she loves intersecting her passions into one story! If she's not playing guitar, thrifting, or engrossed in a fantasy novel, you'll probably find her writing about her latest idea for a short story!
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