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As newcomers to London region increase, so does demand for ESL classes | CBC News

As Canada continues to accept thousands of newcomers every year and many make their way to the London region, the demand for English-language classes is also increasing, with a waitlist for some classes as educators struggle to keep up with demand. 

“I want to learn English to improve my skills, to communicate with people,” said Sabna Altahir Osman Yousif, who is from Sudan and currently taking classes at the G.A. Wheable Centre. “I learn reading, writing, listening and speaking. I want to go to university to complete my studies.” 

Osman Yousif is one of about 2,000 students who take English language studies through the Thames Valley District School Board, southwestern Ontario’s largest provider of language training. Her husband is on a waitlist of about 400 people, waiting to get into a course based on his assessed language level. 

“My husband studied business in my country,” Osman Yousif said. “He needs to complete the studies. After we finish our (English) levels, we can go to the university.” 

Osman Yousif studied to be an early childhood educator in Sudan, and hopes to continued that work here in Canada when she completes her language classes. 

Arrival, assessment, then classes

Newcomers’ language skills are assessed at the Cross Cultural Learner Centre (CCLC) upon arrival in London, usually within five days, said executive director Valerian Marochko. Some need foundation-level training, including basic literacy skills alongside English language learning. Others are in a variety of other levels, from beginner to advanced. There are also classes geared toward specific jobs. 

“Language proficiency is the cornerstone of newcomer integration,” said Valerian Marochko, the executive director of the CCLC. “Integration goes faster, people get better jobs, find more meaningful employment, if they learn the language faster.

“You are required to have a certain level of English proficiency to apply for Canadian citizenship, so our clients, the faster they learn English, the better for them and being able to apply to become voting citizens of Canada, which completes the integration and gives us a sense of belonging.” 

A woman stands in a school hallway in front of a sign that says "ESL orientation."
ESL coordinator Jennifer Jones says it is important to make sure new language learners are placed in the correct level of instruction. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

English as a Second Language (ESL) and Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) classes are funded by provincial and federal governments, said Sheila Carson, who has worked with adult English-language learners at the Thames Valley District School Board for more than 30 years and now coordinates administrative details of the program. 

The waitlist is longer now than it has been, Carson said, because of the continued influx of people coming to the region, including those from the Greater Toronto Area. Language classes are spread over a number of sites and some newcomers are waiting to be in a specific site because of proximity to their homes or a specific course. 

Waitlist acts as triage

“The waitlist is better looked at as a tool to determine need and desire,” she said. “They’re placed on a waitlist and we can contact them [about] where they want to go, [if they] are they truly ready to start, and if they are, can we place them in the right place. Sometimes they want a particular course and they are waiting for that.” 

A woman stands in front of a sign that says "adult and alternative education centre."
Sheila Carson says connecting newcomers to language learning is important. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

The actual wait varies. Jennifer Jones is an ESL coordinator with the school board and focuses on curriculum and progress of the students. It’s important that people get into the courses that will best serve their needs, whether teaching them to make a doctor’s appointment or communicate with their child’s school, or to learn more academic language. 

“Someone who is at a foundational or beginner level, the settlement level is higher. The focus would be on functioning in day-to-day life, as opposed to the higher levels, where they might be looking at higher education or employment needs,” Jones said. 

A young man sits in a car, smiling.
Khalifa Musa has been in Canada for a few months and is learning English at the G.A. Wheable Centre in London. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Kahlifa Musa arrived in Canada  several months ago from Sudan, via Israel. In Sudan, he was a taxi driver. Now, he’s trying to figure out a new country and new climate, all alone, while trying to learn English, too. 

“English is important because it’s the first language here in London and all of Canada. You need English to talk to the people and to do all the thing,” he said. “When I finish learning English, I will decide what job I will be looking for.” 

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