Study abroad at a Canadian island school

Shizuka Obaru


“Thousand Island, please,” responded Shizuka Obaru to her host mother Lynn Graham’s question about which salad dressing she would like to try. During her summer vacation away from university in Kagoshima, Shizuka studied ESL for two weeks at the Quest Language School in Toronto and enjoyed another week at a cottage in Ontario. It was Shizuka’s first meaningful international experience, although she traveled with Mikiko Tawaraida, a university classmate who had previously studied for one-year as an exchange student in Brazil.

Study abroad at a Canadian island school

Should university study abroad programs be focused on language learning, cultural understanding, making the world a better place, career-relevant skills, or country specific knowledge? While university administrators grapple with this difficult question, more and more Japanese students are packing their suitcases and heading overseas.

Japanese students who study abroad in Toronto often enter a language study center. Known as island programs, the Japanese students usually sit in class alongside other Japanese students and take English courses at a basic level, especially designed for Asian students. The centers register students aged 16 and older and assess their levels of speaking with an interview test and writing with a paper test. Shizuka entered a basic class with other Japanese students, whereas Mikiko joined a mid-level class with students from Korea, Taiwan, and China. Courses include a foundations grammar class, writing class, conversation class, communications and discussion class, and a self-study language laboratory. These 1-hour classes can be taken each morning for up to 16 weeks during the summer or 44 weeks during 1 year. Every Monday, new students are allowed to enter ongoing classes. Students could have as many as four teachers. Teachers in the study centers may have worked in Japan or Korea and are trained to teach ESL to Asian students. Teachers use textbooks selected by the language centers and encourage students to discuss common themes such as self-introductions, family, movies, and sports.  Afternoons are left free for students to go sightseeing by themselves. Weekend activities organized by the centers include participation in street festivals, trips to Algonquin Park, and watching films.

Another study abroad model is the direct placement experience that places students in a host high school or university, where they sit beside host country students in class and take the same curriculum as host country students. This immersion model is a greater challenge, requires students to have a minimum TOEFL score of 550, and places more emphasis on student involvement. Mikiko studied math, science, and history using the Portuguese language when she studied at a high school in Rio de Janeiro. In Canada, the University of Prince Edward Island offers immersion programs to students from universities with exchange agreements, but students with lower abilities in English are encouraged to register in non-credit bearing ESL and EAP programs, similar to the island language center model.

Country-specific knowledge and cultural understanding are often left for students to pick up from homestays and outside the classroom experiences. Students can live in culturally rich environments, such as with host families or in international living centers, or live with other Japanese students in rented apartments or residence halls. More than half the residents of Toronto were not born in Canada, meaning a homestay placement could be with a family from Mexico or Italy. The Italian community in Toronto numbers 400,000, and Hispanics make up the fastest-growing segment of the multicultural city. A former ESL teacher at King George International College in Toronto, Lindsay Pexleplace met Shizuka during dinner at a homestay experience. “From day one until the end of the course, I was always worried about embarrassing my students in front of their classmates,” she revealed to Shizuka during dinner. “When I hugged a Korean student who gave me a going-away present, he almost died from shock.”  Although the teacher attempted to lessen the culture shock faced by her students, the experience of disequilibrium in the context of international travel can help students learn about culture. Removing the commonality of Asian culture from the classroom and homestay experience can challenge the visiting students to rethink their own behaviors, political and religious attitudes, and especially their feelings of self-confidence and independence.

Almost everything Shizuka and Mikiko encountered in Canada was new and presented a challenging opportunity for them to learn. They navigated new customs and table manners, ordered breakfasts and dinners, paid for goods and services, and maintained a budget. Communicating with and trying to understand the many people they met while studying abroad were stimuli requiring fresh adaptation. Interacting with a new environment and changing the way they thought about learning helped the students to better interpret what they observed. Shizuka relied on what she knew about people based on her experiences in Japan in a pluralistic manner. Mikiko seemed able to accommodate new experiences by thinking in a multiple number of ways about what she had learned in Brazil and Japan. They both hope to return to Canada for a fullyear, perhaps on the Working Holiday Program offered by the governments of Canada and Japan. Up to 10,000 young people take part in this program that allows them to work temporarily for a year. 2010 will be especially popular because of the demand for unskilled foreign workers at the Olympic Games. Many hope that mastering English will change their lifestyle and make it easier to find a job back in Japan. Even the most basic job can offer career-related skills when it is challenged in a foreign language and requires a change in cultural behavior. When Mikiko returned to university class, she was motivated to begin writing a seminar report comparing the diversity of people in Canadian, Brazilian, and Japanese cities. Shizuka was ready to make two presentations on salads. Her first would be a comparison of foods, explaining thekey ingredients in the pink-colored Thousand Island salad dressing are mayonnaise and chili sauce, which is made of peppers and tomatoes. In summer,the 1,000 islands are popular spots for fishermen, tourists,and increasing numbers of ESL students from Japan. Thousand Island dressing is named for the Thousand Island region of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lake Ontario located between the USA and Canada. Her second presentation would explain a salad as a metaphor for the results of the immigration model she observed in Toronto, where more than 50 percent of residents are visible minorities.