Source: Vancouver Sun
Henry Luan came to Vancouver from China in 2011 looking for a western high school experience, and a chance to go to university in Canada.
The Grade 10 student is among thousands of international students who have arrived in the Lower Mainland during the past decade. But many face an immediate and significant challenge — they speak little or no English, which makes it a struggle for them to communicate and fit in.
Many of these students have trouble with course material and often graduate late from high school. The language barrier also makes it harder to get into university, leading to more stress and pressure.
“When I first came here, I was trying to talk to people, but they didn’t understand what I was saying. It was awkward and I felt so bad,” says Luan.
Even after two years at University Hill Secondary School, he still has difficulties today. “You know you [understand] a lot more than you can actually express, and it is frustrating,” he said.
Joanne Park is a Grade 11 student at Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey. But if she had remained in Korea, she would already be in Grade 12.
In order to earn enough credits and learn English, Park has had to push her graduation off a year. Still, she is uncertain if this decision will give her a better chance of getting into university. It is even more frustrating because all of her friends will be graduating this year.
There is help available to such students within the school system.
If international students’ English-language skills are inadequate for regular English courses, they are put into English as a Second Language/English Language Learners (ESL/ELL) classes.
In B.C., students need at least 80 course credits to graduate from high school. That creates a problem because students cannot earn credits from ESL classes.
On top of that, in order to graduate, students must also have credits for English 10, 11, and 12, as well as provincial exam marks for English 10 and 12.
“Everyone wants to graduate on time, so they rush through our ELL programs,” explains Gleneagle Secondary’s head counsellor Bindy Johal.
She sees many international students drop English 10 because of failing marks, but that makes graduating on time even harder.
Some try to earn these credits in other ways, such as taking online courses.
Johal doesn’t believe that is a good idea. Online courses lack the “face-to-face” element that is important when learning English, she said.
Iqbal Gill, a counselor at University Hill Secondary, said it is expensive for international students to study in Canada, and parents are unwilling to accept that their children will not graduate on time.
Gill said that students are being sent to Vancouver at younger ages to have more time to learn language skills. But this can be a double-edged sword, since it is harder for younger children to be away from parents, she says.
“There are times when I see (young international students) struggling, and it would be really nice if they could be with their families,” said Gill.
Another challenge is that international students’ proficiency in English also affects their mark in other classes. They understand the concepts behind math and science courses, but the language barrier brings their marks down. This also pulls down their admission average for universities.
Park has had to retake Biology 11 after failing last semester because she did not understand many questions.
International students who want to enter university must also meet specific English requirements. Not only do they have to complete English proficiency entrance exams, they need a minimum grade in their English classes. For example, the University of B.C. sets its admission minimum at 70 per cent for English 11 or 12 courses, while at Simon Fraser University the minimum is 60 per cent.
The ESL courses and outside tutoring that many international students sign up for also take away from time that could be spent on other subjects.
Luan, who is interested in computer sciences, could not take the electives he wanted during his first year because he was enrolled in four ESL classes.
Due to the intense focus on improving their English, many international students also miss out on extra-curricular activities, something that universities look for in admissions.
Park said that because of tutoring sessions, she no longer has time for volunteering or sports.
Faced with these pressures, counsellors say students need to accept that it is going to take extra time to learn the language.
Students should not be pressurized to rush their education, and are welcome to stay longer than usual in high school, said Johal.
Youmy Han is a Grade 12 student at Gleneagle Secondary School