Razi Shawahdeh came to Canada from Israel determined to learn English in order to expand his horizons. Now, almost 10 years later, he’s the communications officer for ILAC (International Language Academy of Canada), the Toronto-based private school for international students he attended when he first arrived.
“I spoke no English when I came here,” he says. “When I finished the nine-month language program at ILAC, I was able to apply to George Brown College for theatre and dramatic literature. Now I’m back here.”
Coming to a new school environment on his own with no English language skills was definitely challenging. But the journey was worth it for Shawahdeh. “I only had the people I knew at the school. But what I learned there has allowed me to build my career in Canada.”
ILAC is one of a growing list of private schools catering to international students wanting to pursue English language skills. According to executive director Jonathan Kolber, it receives students from more than 70 countries. “The more nationalities we get, the more interesting the school,” he says.
Of the 12,000 students that come to ILAC, 3,000 are in the 14-to-18-year-old age bracket. The biggest source countries are Russia, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine. Unlike boarding schools, international programs typically place students with approved host families where they can immerse themselves in an English-speaking environment.
“Hosting families is a big part of the support mechanisms for these students,” Kolber says.
Parents typically send their children to these schools to improve their education and career prospects, he notes. “It adds a lot to their marketability if they actually study here. Parents tend to place a big value on Canadian post-secondary education.”
Kolber says interest in English-language programs is growing. “It used to be adults coming to learn more. But now more parents are seeing the value in teenagers getting a head start in learning English.”
Students that do come to these schools have typically spent 10 to 11 years in their home country’s education system. After taking the requisite months of English language instruction in Canada, most gain the proficiency to study at university.
Toronto International Academy, established in Mississauga, is a relatively small school with 200 students from grades nine to 12. According to Charles Lee, principal, its
major market is Asian countries, with some students coming from the Middle East.
He can attest to the fact that interest in international programs is growing. “The No.1 goal for most international students is to enter the top-tier universities in Canada,” Lee explains. “Canada happens to be the No.2 destination for these families, next to the United States.”
The fact that the children who come to the school are mature and tend to be academically focused is a plus, he adds. “It makes our job a little easier.”
At the same time the cultural shock can be quite demanding, so the school works hard to help students understand about Canadian culture and life. In addition to finding compatible host families, activities often include educational field trips such as visits to university fairs.
What students also gain in a Canadian system is a grounding in critical thinking, analysis and leadership skills: all components for building a successful career, Lee says. “The way some kids are educated in their own country can be very mechanical. You have to be creative with the curriculum to help them.”
“The reason why these young people come is the huge advantage it affords them in their education and professional paths, as well as their personal lives,” says Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada in Ottawa. He notes that last year, its member institutions (199 and counting) received 145,000 international students.
Korea and Japan have always represented important markets for international students. More recently, interest has grown significantly from China and Saudi Arabia.
The fastest-growing market for international students is Brazil, he says. “With the World Cup and Olympics, they can’t possibly get to the next level without English. Two-thirds of all Brazilians travelling abroad come to Canada to study, and Toronto is the first choice for most of them.” Languages Canada is, in fact, in the process of working with Brazil to bring disadvantaged youth to Canada on scholarship programs.
The most interesting part of international schools is that they open an important door for young people, Peralta says. “Once they see that many become interested in the Pathway Program, which prepares them for going to college or university.”
As he points out, language is at the core of international education. “It’s really a pathway to everything: a successful academic career, a successful job and, in some cases, successful citizenship.”
The fact that Canada is a destination of choice is something to be proud of, he adds. “It speaks to the core of our multicultural identity. People understand that we have created something that is very vibrant and continues to grow.”
Club ESL is proud to be the preferred travel partner for ILAC and the only student tour company in Western Canada to be awarded the status of Honorary Associate Member of Languages Canada.