ESL with a Twist

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by Teenaz Javat

Not all ESL programs are the same. Sometimes they are modified to serve students with different needs.

A Place to Learn and to Heal

When Mulugeta Abai talks to victims of torture, he heals himself.

A victim of 22 months of torture in an Ethiopian jail, Abei finds it therapeutic to be able to listen, and help set people with backgrounds similar to him, on the road to success.

However, success in this case takes on a very different meaning.

It may not be the next promotion or hefty pay raise. Success may just be having a good night’s sleep without waking up in a sweat, or perhaps finishing a full day of school.

Abai, an educator with over 30 years of experience, is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT).

The centre operates out of two locations in Toronto and according to its website ( its mandate is to “aid survivors in overcoming the lasting effects of torture and war.”

In partnership with the community, the CCVT

  • Supports survivors in the process of successful integration into Canadian society.
  • Works for their protection and integrity.
  • Raises awareness of the continuing effects of torture and war on survivors and their families.
  • It gives them hope after the horror they have left behind.

The centre has assisted approximately 14,000 survivors from 136 different countries since it began in 1983.

ESL for Survivors of Torture

The study of English as a Second Language (ESL) is one of several programs offered at the CCVT.

The ESL program was established in 1984 and continues to be a major draw at the centre.

According to Abei, “The ESL curriculum is especially designed for survivors of torture. The specialized language instruction we impart has been developed by us over the years.”

“It is difficult to learn a new language as an adult. Adding to that is the adjustment our students have to make to a new and different culture,” He says, “It can be quite demanding.”

“Survivors of torture face unique problems,” said Abei. “Some of the after-effects of torture, such as lack of concentration, distrust of strangers, and fear of groups and authority figures, act as barriers to learning a new language.”

The ESL program at CCVT is different in many ways:

  • Development of a different curriculum within the guidelines given to them by the Toronto District School Board.
  • The regular curriculum relies heavily on testing. At the CCVT there is no mandatory testing.
  • Greater shift on building self esteem while learning a new language.
  • No discussions on family issues unless the student initiates it.
  • Computer assisted training where listening skills are given as much importance as reading, speaking or writing skills.
  • Class size is limited to no more than 13 students.
  • Informal non-threatening atmosphere.
  • 100 percent transport subsidy.
  • Childcare available.
  • Heavy on field trips.
  • Literacy classes and individual tutoring provided.
  • Music is integrated into language instruction.
  • Guest speakers are regularly invited to help with boosting the self esteem of clients.

“We have people from 63 countries taking language training at the centre. They are landed immigrants, convention refugees and Canadian citizens. We offer LINC classes for the refugees and immigrants and for others we also offer regular ESL. So at our centre there is something for everybody and it is all at no cost,” Abai said.

For more information visit or call (416) 363-4242.

ESL For Mental Health Patients

Another place where ESL is taught with a difference is at the Hong Fook Mental Health Association in Toronto.

The association was established in 1982 to primarily address the health concerns of the east and Southeast Asian communities (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian) living in the Greater Toronto and outlying areas.

In addition to several support programs, Hong Fook aims at helping people overcome the language barrier that many face as they come to Canada.

The association firmly believes that once their clients overcome the language barrier, in this case, English, they can very easily overcome the cultural barrier in accessing the variety of mental health services available to them.

According to Doris Yang who is a team leader at the association and is in charge of offering ESL to mental health patients, “ESL classes at Hong Fook began in 1986, and the main reason was that our consumers – most of them with some mental health issues – had difficulties accessing and staying in the regular ESL classes offered in the community.”

The classes at Hong Fook are different:

  • There is flexibility to participate.
  • Participants can come and go during class time.
  • They can choose the time and day they wish to participate.
  • If the teacher detects any changes in the students’ behavior they can bring it to the concerns of the mental health support workers for a quick and proactive follow-up.
  • Teachers are provided orientation and on-going support to allow them to work with students with mental health issues.
  • ESL is targeted for students 16 years and over who are from the communities that the agency serves (i.e. Cambodian, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese).
  • All applicants are screened by mental health workers to assess their suitability to participate in a classroom setting.

“Our teachers are from the Toronto District School Board as the ESL class is a partnership with the TDSB. They are qualified ESL teachers but do not have special training in mental health,” said Yang, “so it is here that our association steps in and offers continuous support to the teachers.”

“Our agency provides orientation and on-going support to them in their work with our consumers,” she adds.

All of the services and referrals offered at the association are at no cost to participants.

For more information email or call (416)493-4242.

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