How To Overcome Language Barriers As An International Student


International students have been a part of the Canadian educational landscape for decades, and in recent years their numbers have been steadily increasing.  In 2011, more than 98,000 international students entered Canada—an all time record.

The most significant challenge many of these students face upon arriving in Canada is how to overcome language barriers at school or work.  Being able to communicate effectively in English is often essential to achieving success both inside and outside of the classroom.

When Linda Zhao first arrived in Vancouver in 2010 to pursue her master’s degree in digital media at the University of British Columbia, she spoke very little English.  Fast-forward two and a half years, and she has now graduated and found work as an artist for a Vancouver-based mobile game company.

I caught up with Linda to discuss her initial experiences in Canada, the difficulties of learning English in Vancouver, and what current international students need to do to be successful in the Canadian workplace.

So tell us a bit about your initial experiences in Canada.  Was there a big culture shock?

Linda: When I first came here from China, I feel language was my biggest challenge.  I had a lot of problems understanding my classes, as well as communicating with my classmates.

In terms of culture shock, it’s actually much better than how I imagined.  Vancouver is a very multicultural city and people here are mostly very open-minded and patient.  This helps me a lot when I have to ask other people to slow down or explain what they mean.

Because there are a lot of Chinese in Vancouver, even though I am far away from home, I can still have my favourite hometown food.

You just mentioned that Vancouver is home to a lot of Chinese people.  Did this limit your opportunity to learn English?

Linda: For me, it was a disadvantage to study English in Vancouver.  I didn’t feel like I was fully exposed to an English-speaking environment.  Because I had a lot of classmates who were from mainland China, it was really hard for me to only speak English at school.

How were you able to overcome the initial language barrier?

Linda: When I first got here, I went to a language school which was designed to help ESL [English as a Second Language] students improve on their English.

After I got into my master’s program, a lot of team work and group projects were required.  I had to speak English with my teammates, as well as do presentations in English.  I also made a lot of friends who didn’t speak Chinese, so when we hung out I had to talk to them in English.  This really forced me to develop my English skills.

How have your English skills helped you in finding work?

Linda: For me, the most important thing isn’t to speak perfect English.  It is to show employers that you can work in an English-only environment as an ESL.  You need to be able to articulate ideas and thoughts clearly to your bosses and colleagues, and to do this, you need to be able to write and speak English so that others can understand you.

When you have trouble, you can also use body language and visualize your ideas on paper.  For me, I take a hard copy of my portfolio with me during my interviews.  This really helps me communicate my ideas to potential employers.

Do you have any final advice for current international students?

Linda: Try to speak English when you have other non-English speakers around.  It is a good way to improve your English skills.  More importantly, it can help you to make friends.  For me, speaking a language that everyone can understand is a way of showing respect.

When you’re looking for a job, get your friends whose first language is English to proofread your cover letters and emails.  Make sure your emails to your employers are clear and professional.

As international students, we are all new to this country.  It’s important to network and meet as many people as possible.  Go out and explore whatever city you’re living in when you have the opportunity.  Go to industry and school events to connect with as many people as possible.

Knowing English is important for job hunting, but it’s more important to be good at what you are doing.  No one wants to hire someone just because they can speak perfect English—you have to know what you’re doing as well.

International students: What strategies have you used to overcome language barriers at school or work?

About the author

Justin Louie graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2010 with a BA in History/English. Since then, he's bounced around various industries, including telecommunications and sales, but now he's finally returned to his passion: writing. A massive history buff and trivia aficionado, Justin's interests include martial arts, enjoying the Vancouver outdoors, and accumulating massive amounts of useless information. You can follow him on @louie_justin.