2024-05-07T14:32:01-04:00Oct 13, 2020|

How to improve your English and adapt to Canadian culture

Canada is a diverse nation. As per the 2016 Census, there have been over 7.5 million foreign-born individuals who have come to Canada through the immigration process, representing over one-fifth (21.9 per cent) of Canada’s total population. In 2016, each of 22 immigrant mother tongues was spoken by more than 100,000 people in Canada – such is the diversity. 

English and French are the two official languages in Canada, but for most immigrants, these two languages are not their mother tongue. Many newcomers invest a lot of time and effort to learn English before they move to Canada. 

In this article, we hope to share some tips and advice from an experienced teacher, Karen Thomson, to help you finesse your English language skills. We asked her some popular questions by newcomers, and here’s what she had to say.    

Q: What are some of the English as a second language (ESL) programs or courses for newcomers in Canada?

The program you choose really depends on your situation. There are full-time as well as part-time programs available. You should consider your current level of English communication and the goal you wish to achieve – whether it’s simply learning the basics or wanting to upgrade your professional skills. Newcomers and refugees are eligible for free ESL programs provided by settlement organizations, funded by the government. 

If you are eligible for government-funded ESL programs, one of the best places to start is by looking into services offered to your ethnic community. Certain religious places and specialized immigration centres also offer classes or can help you find what you are looking for. Some popular organizations offering English language programs are COSTI, CultureLink, Canadian Centre for Language and Culture Studies (CCLCS), and Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto

If you need to upgrade your skills to be accepted into your profession, then the immigrant centres and community colleges are a great place to start. There are special programs offered for many fields and professions. The program you choose will, of course, depend on your field, your timeline, your financial situation, and your individual needs.

Check out English as a second language: ESL resources in Canada for more province-specific resources to help you improve your English. 

Q: Are there any free English language apps or websites that can help improve communication skills?

Just like choosing an English language program, identifying a suitable app or website depends on the language goals you intend to achieve. 

Apps such as Duolingo, Babel, and Mauril, make language learning convenient and interactive. The short lesson length also makes it more likely that you’ll stick to a learning schedule. Mauril is a free app to help you improve your English and French oral comprehension skills, using a wide range of stimulating and entertaining content from CBC/Radio-Canada.

One of my favourite websites for improving academic English skills is Using English for Academic Purposes (UEfAP). This website has more resources than you can ever complete. There are explanations of various skills and also lessons to help you improve those skills. For example, you can learn the best ways to take notes in class, and then listen to a short lecture about an interesting topic and practise your note-taking skills.

If you’re interested in current events, Breaking News English is a useful website. They have innumerable lessons on current topics. For example, a recent lesson described an astronomy prize given to a photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy. Each lesson is graded from Level zero to six, and for each topic, you can explore any or all of the 40 exercises associated with the topic. Don’t worry, you can also opt for a quick, two-page lesson, or you can choose specific skills to focus on. 

For those in Toronto, one of the websites you can explore is Mango Languages because it’s available for free to everyone who has a Toronto Public Library card. Generally, libraries in all major cities will have some programs geared towards language learning, so be sure to check with your nearest public library.

Finally, if you’re interested in practising your listening skills, in particular, English Listening Lesson Library Online – ELLO is a great resource. On this site, you can choose the difficulty level of the speech as well as the topic, grammar focus, or accent. Then listen to any of the short texts and answer a few questions. These activities are not long, so they’re great if you’re on the go.

The hardest skill to improve through online learning is speaking. To improve your speaking, you do usually need another human. Therefore, the best way you can continue to improve speaking skills is to regularly converse with others in English. 

Q: Which television shows, movies, or podcasts are good to improve English skills and help newcomers get familiar with Canadian culture?

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has a program called Learning English with CBC. They post lessons and audio related to the news. The lessons are organized into two levels, according to the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB).

Watching local television shows and movies is always a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. Choose a genre that interests you and then pick a show or movie from that genre. One of my favourites is Double Happiness. It’s an old movie (1994), and you may recognize the star, Sandra Oh, from her role in Grey’s Anatomy. It’s about the struggles of a young woman whose family immigrated to Canada. 

I highly recommend checking out the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada film catalogue as well. I use many of these films in my classes to spark conversation and sometimes to explore ideas related to Canadian history. Many of these films are animated, but don’t be fooled – they’re for adults, not just children. One of the most famous animated short films the NFB has produced is The Sweater, based on a famous Canadian book, The Hockey Sweater, by Roch Carrier. It’s available to view for free on the site.

Looking for more television shows, movies, podcasts, or books? Check out: 

Q: What advice would you give newcomers who are looking to improve their English language skills?

The short answer to this question is practise and immersion. There is no magic formula, website, book, or even age to learn a language. You just have to practise! 

Many people believe that children learn languages more quickly and easily than adults – this is a myth. Research clearly shows that adults can learn a language just as well as young people. The main reason that adults learn English at a slower pace than children is the environment. 

To give you an example, my lovely neighbour Giovanni came to Canada 50 years ago. Now, at age 91, his English is still at the beginner level while his son speaks fluently – this is mainly due to their experiences when they moved here. 

Giovanni came to Canada and immediately started looking for a job to support his family. His Italian connections helped him, and he ended up working with other Italian people, speaking Italian during breaks and at lunch. After work, he spoke to his wife and their friends in Italian. He definitely studied English, but with work and a family, there was little time left for serious study. He improved, but he wasn’t very confident. 

Because he wasn’t confident, he started avoiding situations in which he would have to speak English. When he had a health concern, he was concerned about expressing himself perfectly, so he went to an Italian-speaking doctor. He didn’t attend parent-teacher meetings or go to school events because he was shy about speaking English. Over the years, he learned English, but slowly and never fluently. When he spoke to people in English, everyone generally understood him, and hence, they didn’t correct his mistakes because they were kind and understanding. He has a wonderful life in Canada, he raised an amazing family, but his English has never developed higher than an intermediate level. 

Tip: If you want to progress, you need to know where you are making mistakes. So, if you’re friends with a Canadian, it might be a good idea to ask them to help you progress by pointing out your mistakes.

His son, who arrived in Canada at the age of 11, started school immediately after moving. He got very few formal English lessons, but what he did get was an experience – he had to speak English to make himself understood. There were very few kids in his school who spoke Italian, and the teachers spoke only English. To survive, he had to learn and try. For seven hours a day, he was immersed in an English-only environment. 

Sometimes, sadly, that environment was not kind. Forty-nine years later, he still remembers saying, “I didn’t do my homeworks” and hearing his classmates laugh loudly. He never made that mistake again. He listened carefully, worked hard at learning English, and he was successful. 

This example clearly illustrates the key to language-learning success in Canada – immersion. To learn English, you must surround yourself with English as much as possible. Speak English, even when you feel uncomfortable. Join your child’s school council, attend religious services in English, or volunteer. Take advantage of the wonderful city in which you live. Get out of your comfort zone and try!

About Karen Thomson

Karen (BSc, MT, TESL) has been teaching English (online and in-person) to adults in Toronto for 35 years. She has worked with immigrants and refugees at community organizations like Support Enhance Access Service (S.E.A.S.) Centre, CUIAS, and the Afghan Women’s Organization and has taught international students at ILSC Language Schools and the University of Toronto’s English Language Program. Karen is also a teacher-educator and has coached teachers at conferences throughout Ontario and at CCLCS’s TESL program. She believes in helping learners realize their full potential.