Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter Canada each year are required to take a language test. But their scores are due within the next two years, one of many problems critics have with the test.
The Canadian government invited 431,645 permanent residents to the country last year, a record. Most must be fluent in English or French.
Applicants can attempt either of two tests recognized by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC): the Canadian Index of English Language Proficiency Program (CELPIP) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Both cost over $250 and the results are only good for two years. There are also French tests that have the same validity period and cost the same.
The results of a language test are also sometimes required when immigrants enroll in college or apply for work permits.
The price of the test, and possibly having to pay to take it multiple times, is just one issue advocates and prospective residents have with the test. Some see it as an insufficient way to assess someone’s candidacy for residency in Canada.
Language skills ‘being questioned’
Ukwori Ejibe, now a resident of Alberta, moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2020. She has a BA from the US and two Master’s degrees, one from Paris and one from Singapore.
But before moving to Canada, he tried the IELTS test twice in Nigeria, where English is the official language.
Language test scores are assigned a point value. Applicants also get points for things like education and work experience. The more points an applicant has, the better their chances of becoming a permanent resident.
Ejibe’s first scores in 2016 were not high enough to obtain permanent residency. After her second attempt, she was invited to emigrate.
She says she was “pretty upset” to learn that she would have to take the test a third time to be admitted to the college program she wanted to attend in BC.
“It’s definitely an expensive process to move to Canada, and one of the reasons it’s so expensive is because the IELTS is not like other processes, which hopefully you only do once,” he said.
When Ejibe took the test for the third time, he said that he had not prepared as much as before, but he still got an excellent grade.
“You feel like you’ve overcome all the hurdles and your English skills are being called into question, and this is for someone who went to school in the US and was educated in Nigeria in English.”
Concern about the period of validity
Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says most of the people they work with have a hard time passing the exam on their first try, even if English is their first and only language.
“It’s a huge money machine,” he said, noting that the fact that the tests have a two-year expiration date before they have to be taken again makes it clear that the exams are about stealing money.
“It just goes to show that it’s just a way to get money from people and not really assess people’s ability to work or live in Canada,” he said.
The permanent residence application costs $1,365. Ejibe says that he has spent roughly $1,000 on testing alone and says they only add to an already expensive process.
Unlike applicants for permanent residence, those seeking citizenship do not need to retake the test if they have passed it once. They can submit their test results even if they have expired.
Ejibe wonders about the reason behind this.
“If they can do this for citizenship, they should also consider it for immigration purposes,” he said.
Elena Ashford, an Ontario-based immigration lawyer, says these English test scores play a big role in a person’s eligibility to move to Canada and sees the cost of the tests as an issue.
“Many people have to retake the test and that is a lot of money. I don’t understand why the test is due in two years,” she said.
Maintaining ‘critical’ competition: IRCC
The British Council, the UK-based organization that offers IELTS, recommends that test results remain valid for a period of two years. IRCC says that it has followed this recommendation in its policy since it began using third-party language tests.
IRCC said by email that the two-year validity period is meant to take into account factors such as how often people actually speak the language they are assumed to be proficient in, how recently they have received instruction in the language and if they have maintained their level of language proficiency.
“It is critical to ensure that your language proficiency does not deteriorate over time, prior to landing,” the email said.
In its emailed response, IRCC said language proficiency is strongly associated with positive economic outcomes and has been shown to have a direct impact on increasing income and finding suitable employment.
But some still say that language tests are not a reliable indicator of how well a person will do after immigrating to Canada.
when the path from temporary resident to permanent residence was introduced in 2021, Hussan says the traffic on the language test sites was so intense that the websites crashed.
He says that using language tests to determine a person’s ability to thrive in a new country is baseless and thinks it would be better to update the testing system entirely.
“If you’ve already been working in Canada that should be proof enough, if you’ve been studying here that should be proof enough.”