When moving to Canada, being able to communicate in the languages that are commonly spoken in your new country is essential. Canada has two official languages—English and French. English is widely spoken in most parts of the country, except Quebec, where French is the primary language, and parts of New Brunswick, which is Canada’s only officially bilingual province.
English is a second language for many newcomers, and communicating in a non-native tongue can be scary. While your language skills don’t need to be perfect, not having at least moderate proficiency in English may disrupt your chances of finding employment, getting an education, or even doing day-to-day tasks. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn or improve your English before or after moving to Canada. For this article, we asked Media Hajinia, a former English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Canada, to share tips and resources for newcomers who’re working on their English language skills.
In this article:
Why learn or improve your English before moving to Canada?
As a newcomer, you’ll likely need basic English language skills to adapt to life in Canada, and it takes time to build language skills. It’s a good idea to start learning or practicing well in advance of your move so you can hit the ground running when you get to Canada.
However, strong language skills can be an advantage even before you arrive here. Regardless of whether you’re a beginner or a non-native English speaker with limited fluency, there are many reasons to work on your English before moving to Canada. Some of these include:
Better language test scores can improve your immigration application
Whether you’re applying for permanent residence (PR) or a Canadian study permit, you’ll need to take an approved English or French language test to qualify. Canadian universities and colleges (outside of Quebec) require applicants to have a certain minimum English score to secure admission.
Most PR programs have a language score cut-off too, so you need at least moderate fluency in English (or French) to qualify. If you’re applying for an Express Entry program, the higher your language test score, the more Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) points you get and the better your chances of receiving an Invitation to Apply (ITA) for PR.
Learning about life in Canada
Pre-arrival research is crucial in making your settling-in process easier and helps you build a strong foundation for your life in Canada. You’ll need at least moderate proficiency in English (or French in Quebec) to find and understand the information you need, whether it’s about renting a home or financial products you’ll need in your first six months in Canada.
Although the government provides free pre-arrival settlement services to approved permanent residents, these services are typically available in English (sometimes in French).
Starting your job search in Canada
Finding employment in Canada can take time. Many newcomers start preparing for their job search, and even applying for jobs, before arriving in Canada. To do that, you’ll need to review and understand job descriptions posted online, network with professionals in Canada, and create customized resumes that you can submit to employers. All of these activities will require a good grasp of the English language.
Moving to a new country isn’t easy. Even newcomers who are fluent in English sometimes feel stressed and overwhelmed during their initial weeks in Canada, and if you don’t speak the official language, navigating a completely different environment can be even harder. You’ll need to communicate effectively—likely in English—for numerous day-to-day tasks as you adapt to life in Canada. Here are some aspects of life in Canada where English language skills will likely be required:
Finding a place to live
Finding accommodation often involves searching for online listings (usually in English), shortlisting homes that meet your criteria, communicating with a landlord or realtor, and reading and understanding the lease agreement. Unless you can read and speak the official language with at least a moderate degree of proficiency, it may be difficult to find a suitable home and negotiate a lease agreement that works for you.
Getting a job
Since employees of most companies (except for those based in Quebec) conduct the duties of their job in English, the hiring process is typically in English as well. All recruitment-related tasks, including advertising available roles, accepting resumes from candidates, and interviews, are conducted in English. As a newcomer, you must be able to adequately communicate your skills, experience, and qualifications, both in written (on your resume) and verbal (during interviews) format in order to get hired.
Regulated jobs and trades in Canada, such as medicine, nursing, engineering, teaching, construction, plumbing, and carpentry, require a license to practice, and often fluency in either English or French is a requirement to get that license.
Once you land a job in Canada, you’ll need to communicate effectively in English with your colleagues, manager, and clients. In most parts of Canada, workplace communication predominantly happens in English, and a strong grasp of the language will enable you to properly handle work-related issues, documentation, emergencies and other employment matters. Regardless of what your role is, being able to speak, understand, and write in English will undoubtedly play a role in your career growth.
Day-to-day tasks, like buying groceries
You’ll have to communicate with people, at least at a basic level, in many everyday instances, like purchasing groceries or coffee, ordering at a restaurant, greeting people you meet, or asking for directions. You may also need some English language skills to stay informed about Canadian news and announcements made by provincial or federal governments, or to complete administrative tasks.
Enrolling your children (or yourself) in school
If you have school-aged children, enrolling them in school soon after you arrive in Canada will be a priority for you. However, the admission process for most schools (except Francophone schools) is in English, and as a newcomer parent, you’ll need to communicate with the school board to figure out which school your child will go to and submit an admission application.
Some newcomers also choose to pursue further studies in Canada to improve their employability. For instance, if you’re looking for mid-level or senior-level jobs, you may require a degree or a certificate to meet the education requirements for the role. Since most study programs in Canada are offered in English, you may need to improve your language skills so you can complete your academic assignments, presentations, and exams.
Canada is renowned for its publicly funded healthcare system, and as a permanent resident, you’ll be covered under your provincial or territorial healthcare plan. Even temporary residents, such as work permit and study permit holders, are covered by provincial health coverage in some parts of Canada.
However, to get the treatment and medical services you require, you must be able to clearly explain your condition and medical history to a doctor or health professional. The ability to communicate in English will also be useful in case there’s an emergency.
Making yourself less vulnerable to scams
Newcomers to Canada are more likely to fall victim to scams because they may not always be familiar with government processes, banking best practices, or tricks that fraudsters use. If you’re not fluent in English and cannot understand what someone tells you, you may be even more vulnerable to fraud. Never share personal information with anyone you don’t know or trust, and, even as you work on your language skills, be sure to familiarize yourself with common scams targeting newcomers and who you may be required to share your financial information with.
Building a social and professional network
Networking with other professionals can help you find a job in your field and grow in your career. Your professional network can help connect you to hidden job opportunities that aren’t advertised and give you referrals or recommendations to improve your chances of being hired. While you can network with professionals who’ve moved to Canada from your home country in your native language, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just that small group. Being able to effectively communicate in English will help you grow your network faster and leverage your connections to tap into the hidden job market.
As a newcomer, you may also want to network socially, outside of your professional circle. Making new friends can make it easier to settle into your new life and adapt to Canada’s culture. To network with people, both professionally and socially, and showcase the value you bring, you need to speak a common language.
Getting your Canadian citizenship
If you plan to stay in Canada permanently, becoming a citizen may be something you’re already thinking about. To qualify for Canadian citizenship, you must be a permanent resident and must fulfill the physical residency requirement, file income taxes, pass a citizenship test, and prove your English or French language skills.
To prove your language proficiency, you can either submit approved language test scores (expired results are accepted) or academic credentials for study programs that you completed in English (or French). You will also need to take the citizenship test in English or French. If the IRCC isn’t convinced that you meet the language requirement, you may be called for an interview to prove your English or French skills.
Whether you’re still in your home country or have already moved to Canada, it’s never too early or too late to work on your language skills. There’s no shortage of valuable English as a Second Language (ESL) resources out there. Here are some simple, effective, and free resources that Media, a former ESL instructor, recommends to help you master the English language:
Free English language resources to use before moving to Canada
- iSLCollective: An excellent free website that offers over 85,000 worksheets for learning English as a Second Language (ESL). The platform has teacher worksheets, presentations, and video lessons for different learning levels. Whether you’re looking to improve your listening skills or reading comprehension or practice your English with writing and speaking activities, this website can be a useful resource.
- Learn English Feel Good: A free website that offers high-quality, free resources for ESL. They have listening exercises, pronunciation practice, grammar and vocabulary for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learning levels.
- TEDEd: TEDEd has a wide range of interactive videos, all the way from beginner to college and university levels. The platform covers a wide range of learning topics, including arts, business and economics, health, design, mathematics, philosophy and religion, social studies and many more. This is an excellent tool to practice your listening skills. You can also find language and literature-related videos that offer tips and tricks to help you master your English language skills.
- Language learning apps like Duolingo: Language apps can make learning English more convenient and can motivate you to practice every day. Duolingo, Drops, and Mondly have both free and paid versions, while apps like Babbel offer the first few lessons for free and require users to subscribe to unlock additional content.
Free English language resources available in Canada
While you can continue all or some of the resources listed above even after you arrive in Canada, you may be able to find some additional resources here locally as well. Some of these include:
- Free English classes offered by the government: The federal government’s free Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program (and the Cours de langue pour les immigrants au Canada or CLIC) is available to all landed immigrants (not visitors, temporary residents, or citizens) including refugees who are over the age of 18 years. Before signing up for LINC classes, you must do a CLB self-assessment (you can do this before you arrive in Canada) and visit an organization that conducts formal language assessments for new immigrants. LINC classes are offered online and in person at multiple locations. Your provincial governments may also offer English as a Second Language (ESL) or French as a Second Language (FSL) classes for citizens through school boards.
- Language resources at public libraries: Public libraries in Canada are excellent resources for newcomers. Whether you’re looking for beginner- or intermediate-level reading material in English (or dozens of other languages) or prefer audiobooks or English movies as a learning medium, be sure to visit your local library to see what they have to offer. Some libraries also organize language workshops, reading sessions, and other interactive activities to help newcomers learn and practice English.
Start with a self-assessment
Before you start taking language lessons, try to get a better picture of your current language abilities by doing a self-assessment. CLB Online Self-Assessment (CLBOSA) offers a free tool that allows you to measure your English skills against the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB).
If you’ve already taken an approved language test, such as IELTS or CELPIP, for your immigration application, you can also convert your score to CLB to figure out your proficiency level. A CLB score of 8 is generally considered good while a score of 6 shows that you can manage basic communication.
Using your self-assessment as a basis for your learning plan will help you improve your English skills without wasting time on what you already know. For example, if you score a CLB 6, you likely don’t need to relearn the English alphabet, but can perhaps start by improving your grammar or building your vocabulary.
Sign up for a LINC or ESL program
A structured learning approach can help you master the English language faster, especially if you’re in a classroom where you can practice. Check your city’s website for information on Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes in your area and register as soon as you arrive. Some universities and colleges also offer English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, but you’ll need to pay a tuition fee for these.
Connect with English speakers
Surrounding yourself with people who speak English is a great way to absorb the language. You may be able to find fluent English speakers in your home country as you get ready to move to Canada. Once you arrive, make an active effort to expand your social circle beyond just people from your home culture. Where possible, try to connect with people who speak English as their primary language. This may feel intimidating in the beginning, especially if you’re still learning the basics of their language, but it can help in your English learning progress.
Volunteering can be a great way to practice your English
As you start to get settled in Canada, look for volunteering opportunities at your local community centre, your children’s school, or other organizations that accept volunteers. Not only will this expose you to other English speakers and push you to speak the language, but it is also a great way to gain Canadian experience that you can put on your resume when you start your job search.
Find language resources that capture your interest
Signing up for classes and reading academic books isn’t the only way to learn a language. Many learners find it easier to pick up new words and improve their pronunciation and grammar by watching English television shows or movies and listening to English songs, audiobooks, and podcasts. Audio or audio-visual formats work even better if they are about a topic you’re passionate or knowledgeable about.
Don’t be afraid to practice English in public
Many newcomers are shy about speaking English in public because they are afraid of making mistakes. However, the advantage of living in a country where immigrants comprise a significant percentage of the population is that Canadians aren’t judgemental about other people’s language skills. So, don’t hesitate to practice publicly until it comes naturally.
Also, in Canada, it’s considered perfectly okay to speak English with a bit of a foreign accent, so focus on being understood rather than speaking without an accent.
Find a conversation partner
Practice makes perfect, so look for a conversation partner with common interests and go on walking chats or coffee chats with them. Ask them to correct any grammatical mistakes, and write down the correct expressions or phrases in a little notebook to refer to later.
Moving to a new country can be overwhelming and learning a new language on top of such a big move may seem hard. However, using the resources available to you, connecting with your community, and practicing your language skills will make your transition to Canada much easier. Remember, Canada is a multicultural country, and there is no shortage of support available to help newcomers like you feel at home here.