• Irena Kolbuszewska

My English Learning Experience in Canada

Updated: Dec 11, 2021





Passionate Language Stories


My English Learning Experience in Canada (and what you can take out of it)


This post is divided into the following parts:


1. Introduction

2. My English language skills when I moved to Canada: my strong and weak points

3. My initial difficulties in my ESL class

4. How I overcame those difficulties

5. Conclusion: which aspects of my learning method could work for you and which ones not necessarily

You will also find a short vocabulary section at the end of this post for words or expressions marked in italics.

For most people the second and sometimes the only other language they learn besides their mother tongue is English. That’s why I’ll concentrate on it today.

As you might have read, I currently live in Poland but I used to live in Canada, for a quite a long time. I was 17 when I moved there.

I had been learning English in school for 2 years when I came to Canada. My English definitely wasn’t great. You could probably say as was an elementary English learner. I came to Canada in July and in September I was supposed to start attending high school and have all the subjects in English. Including an ESL course (English as a Second Language). There is one element in my story which you will probably easily recognize and identify with: I was good at grammar. Before going for the first time to school in Toronto, I had been given a test that was supposed to evaluate my English level. This was a grammar test, I scored really well on it.

I was assigned to an advanced ESL class. The problem was I knew very little vocabulary, I was completely not used to the Canadian accent and my speaking skills left a lot to be desired. I was extremely shy and I was scared that I would misunderstand the teacher and do something which would show that I should attend a lower level class. I quickly realized the level was too high for me, but I was determined to catch up with other students, as long as... I was given enough time to do so.

Our teacher wanted each of us to choose a novel and write two journal entries about it per week. We were supposed to write what we thought about the book, its characters, what we liked about the novel and what we didn’t. The first 20 minutes of class were dedicated to silent reading. We were allowed to take our books home just for one day in order to complete our assignments, then we had to bring them back to class.

I had never read a novel in English before. The longest text written in English I had read by that time was probably about one page long. Now, I had to choose one of those thick books that lay on a shelf in the classroom. I opted for Jack London, because I had read one of his novels in Polish so I thought maybe it would be easier for me to understand it. Had I known... I dug myself into a deep hole, it was a really difficult book with a lot of “insane” vocabulary. The first 20 minutes I would pretend that I was reading, trying to pronounce sentences printed in the book silently in my head. Then the lesson went on. I kept silent. I didn’t take part in any discussion. At the end of the day, I would go home knowing that I was supposed to hand in, the following day, two different journal entries, one per each chapter I “read” in class.

So I would go home, open the book, write down about 20-30 vocabulary items which seemed to me essential to undertand the plot. I would write a definition of each one of them. However, once I finished translating the last chosen word, I would not remember anymore the beginning of the story. I had no idea what happened in that particular chapter. Next, I would take my vocabulary list, I would read the chapter again with the definitions copied from a dictionary and quickly write down what happened in the book. I would basically write, in my own words, a summary of the chapter. Eventually, remembering what the chapter was about, I would write my own personal analysis of it or in other words “a journal entry”.

All of this took me between two to three hours. I still had one more journal entry left. However, I was just too exhausted to even start reading the following chapter of the book. And I still had other school subjects to study! For a couple of weeks, I would just write down only one entry per week, hand it in, get 5 points out of 5 for the first assignment and 0 out of 5 for the second. My teacher would get surprised and angry at the same time, she couldn’t understand why I would write down only one journal entry instead of two if I was able to produce a high-quality writing assignment. Of course, she DID suspect that something was wrong. My fellow classmates knew it as well. But I would always get a perfect score for each assignment I was able to hand in. She was also able to recognize my writing style, so she didn’t question my work. After a couple of weeks, I started understanding the book much better and I didn’t have to spend so much time consulting the dictionary. I was actually able to understand the general context of the story, so it took me much less time to write each journal entry. I was able to complete all the required assignments in time. I improved my speaking skills, I got used to the Canadian accent and I had no problems passing my mid-term and final exams. My final mark was 92%, only two of my fellow classmates had better results. For me it was unbelievably shocking, given my struggles at the beginning, but I also felt I deserved it.

The story didn’t end there. There were both positive and negative aspects of it.

A huge upside of this unusual learning system was the fact that I started seeing myself in a new light. I proved to myself that I was extremely determined and resilient. Besides, completing successfully that ESL course meant that I was allowed to attend regular English literature classes with other native Canadian students, which was an achievement in itself.

Any downsides? I was burned out at the beginning of the following semester. I didn’t have much energy to study English and my marks dropped a bit. I still managed to have pretty good results but I wasn’t very happy with myself. As a 17-year old, I didn’t understand yet that I didn’t have to score each time over 90% in an English class. In addition, studying for long hours didn’t help me make friends and feel less lonely in a completely new place. That took a long time to change.

If I were in a similar situation today, I guess I would go slowly, give myself more time to learn the language. At that period of time though, I didn’t want to stay longer in high school than it was necessary (I was eager to go to university) and that’s exactly what meant settling for a lower-level course first. So, if I were a 17-year-old again, I would do exactly the same thing over again.

What is then my take on this method of learning? Well, I recommend some aspects of it J. I definitely don’t think it’s a great idea to study a long list of 20-30 words you don’t understand. Neither is it practical to spend hours on it. However, it’s worth to be consistent and determined. From the technical point of view, I think the reason I was able to make pretty quick progress (A2 in September, B2/C1 in December) was the fact that I would paraphrase everything I read - try to describe it with my own words. Whenever you make what you’re trying to learn more personal, it speeds up the process. This is probably the most fitting conclusion to the story of my English learning journey in high school.


Vocabulary:

To score well on a test – if you scored well on a test, it means you gain a lot of points, you have good results. I scored really well on my last test, I only got one question wrong.

My speaking skills left a lot to be desired – there was still a lot of work to do to improve my speaking skills. My English speaking skills left a lot to be desired, I was only able to say a few basic sentences.

I dug myself into a deep hole – I got myself into a difficult situation by making a wrong decision. It was a very risky decision, I dug myself into a deep hole.

To understand the plot – when I want to understand the plot, I want to understand the storyline (eg. of a novel), I want to understand what happens. What’s the plot of The Lord of the Rings?

A writing assignment - a kind of homework when you have to write something, it can be an essay, a short review etc. Our French teacher gave us a short writing assignment.

To hand in an assignment – when you hand in an assignment you give it to a teacher so they can correct it and mark it. I need to hand in an essay on Tuesday.

A huge upside of this unusual learning system – an upside is an advantage, a positive aspect of something.

A downside – it is the opposite of an upside. This project has its upsides and downsides.


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