How to Speak Montreal/Quebec/Canada for International Students

2013-2014 Issue 1



The School of Continuing Studies’ Intensive English Language and Culture (IELC) program serves as a gateway to further academic studies at McGill and other universities, helping students meet their goals of living, studying and working in English. There’s also an informal community outreach program called SPEAK, which helps international students learn the intricacies – and enjoy the fun – of Montreal life.

SPEAK (“it doesn’t stand for anything – we just thought it was a good name,” says unofficial “grandmother in residence” and program coordinator Sandra Frisby) is run by the McGill Centre for Lifelong Learning (MCLL) in collaboration with IELC. SPEAK pairs volunteer mentors with international students who want to improve their conversation skills and participate in intercultural exchanges. The program has grown exponentially – from 10 volunteers two years ago to about 30 volunteers and 50 students this year, says Frisby with great pride.

A long-time member of MCLL, Frisby has moderated many study groups. When she was a “very young teacher,” she spent two years in what is now Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). The cross-cultural openness fostered by that experience has carried over into her work with mentors and students in the SPEAK program.

One-on-one conversation soon blossoms into shopping expeditions, checking out the cool parts of town, meals out, and even attending church services together. Some deep and lasting friendships have formed along the way. A volunteer who started out with one student is now mentoring the whole family, who have all immigrated to Canada.

Volunteer Ruth Rigby describes her experience as a SPEAK mentor: “It’s been a truly warm and enriching experience… As a
mentor, you experience glimpses of other cultures and countries through the eyes of these engaging and enthusiastic young people.”

Min Jin from China, a student in the McGill Intensive English Language Program who’s thinking of immigrating to Canada, chimes in: “I’ve already done two conversations with my mentor, Gordon. We talked about the city, McGill University, sports, history, news in the world and many other interesting things. I learned a lot from him. This will really help improve my English.”



Louise Kyrtatas, Assistant Program Coordinator in Language and Intercultural Communication, together with the IELC students prepared an international lunch at which the volunteers received certificates. Frisby beams at the memory. “That’s so important, because our volunteers work individually and we all crave a sense of community,” she says.

Kyrtatas can’t say enough good things about the program. “It’s intercultural and inter- generational. SPEAK members, led by Sandra, have become sources of information, support and mentoring in the lives of our students. This is what we want them to take away from their experience in Canada and at McGill. It’s what we’re all about.”


Even born-and-bred Montrealers can have inexplicable gaps in their knowledge of this great city. There may be a few who (gasp!) don’t know where Schwartz’ is located, or where to get the best poutine in town. Now try putting yourself in the shoes of a newcomer. Imagine how overwhelming the diversity of Quebec society and the dazzling array of choices available to Montrealers can be, especially if English is your second language or you’re an international student.


1) How much of the world’s maple syrup supply is produced in Quebec?

2) How many kilometres of underground tunnels are there in the Montreal subway system?

3) What’s the best place to buy bagels in Montreal?


1) 80%

2) 30 km

3) There is no definitive answer. Both Fairmount and St. Viateur have their staunch partisans.

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