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Renewing Canada’s IES - Sectoral papers: Language education

Published on March 1, 2023


The language education sector is a key part of the international education ecosystem in Canada. Language education programs are offered by private and public institutions across Canada to teach French and/or English as a second language to Canadian and international students. The length of the programs varies according to student needs and can range from 2 weeks to over a year.

There are six main segments of language studies in Canada for international students:

  • General English/French;
  • Business English/French;
  • English/French for Specific Purposes;
  • English/French for Academic Purposes;
  • Pathway program leading to a degree, diploma, or certificate at a university or college; and
  • Summer or winter camp for junior students (under 18).

Although not as popular as English and French, foreign languages and indigenous languages are also taught in Canadian language institutions.

In addition to traditional language students, Canadian language institutions also cater to other groups of students such as recent immigrants (often funded by government-funded settlement programs), public servants (public sector second language programs), and students studying as part of an ongoing degree, certificate, or diploma program.

Languages Canada (LC) is the major association in the language education sector. LC represents over 200 private and public members offering accredited English and French training programs. The trends and challenges highlighted within this paper are based on their Annual Report on Language Education in Canada (2019-2021). There are limitations to the data and the analysis, as LC does not have members located in the Territories and in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Current trends

According to survey data collected by LC in 2021, there were 53,686 international students studying a language program in Canada. The English segment welcomed the vast majority of international students at 96.4% in contrast to 3.6% for the French language segment. In comparison, there were 145,684 international students in 2019, representing a 36.8% decrease in the number of students from 2019 to 2021. The decline can be partly attributed to the COVID-19 travel restrictions and the increase in supply of language programs offered within international students’ home countries.Footnote 1

It is important to note that this number does not include all international students studying a language program, as LC does not represent unaccredited language institutions in Canada. Furthermore, when looking at IRCC data, students holding an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) or a Temporary Resident Visa (TRV) in Canada for language training purposes for a period of less than six months, are not captured in the traditional definition of “international students”.

Key points

  • Canada remains a popular language travel destination for international students. In 2019, Canada was the fourth most popular English travel destination, after the UK, the USA and Australia. Canada was the first destination to open its borders to international students in 2020, thus benefiting from the pent-up demand for language training leading to Canada’s global market share increase from 12% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. The increase in market share is largely attributed to Canada’s well managed border policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Both private and public institutions are seeing a decrease in student numbers and weeks. In 2019, student intake in public and private programs decreased, in turn decreasing the student week volume due to shorter stays. In 2020, private sector programs suffered more than public programs. This was reversed in 2021, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of students and study weeks in the public sector, while the private sector slightly lost in student numbers but gained in student weeks. This can partly be attributed to the decrease in demand, with language training being offered within students’ home countries, as well as proliferation of language learning IT tools and apps.
  • The top source countries are more diversified in the language sector. Unlike other sectors, such as colleges and universities, where India and China represent over 50% of all study permit holders, the top 5 source countries in 2021 were Japan, Colombia, China, Mexico and Brazil. Asia and Latin America were the largest source regions of all language students in Canada.
  • There is an increase in the number of study permits held by language students. In 2019, study permit holders represented 29% of international students studying a language program. By contrast, from 2020 to 2021, the ratio of students on a study permit continued to increase, rising from 44% in 2020 to 56% in 2021. This significant increase since 2019 was largely due to the border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic because only students with a valid study permit could enter Canada. After lifting the border measures, two main reasons led to an increase in study permits: students wanting to continue studying in Canada and the ability to work off-campus if they are registered as a full-time student at a DLI.
  • One of the challenges facing the Canadian language study sector is that language students coming to Canada for less than 6 months cannot work during their studies. IRCC policies allowed language students studying in Canada less than 6 months’ access to study permits due to the COVID-19 border restrictions, however these study permits did not come with work authorization. Work authorization for study permit holders is limited to students who are in full-time post-secondary program of study that will grant them a degree or a diploma. International language students do not have access to work authorizations even if they have a study permit and this is ultimately having a negative impact on the sector.
  • The most popular course remained General English or French. In 2021, the course type accounted for an even greater percentage of students (69%) compared to 60% in 2020. English or French for Academic Purposes was the second most popular course type (16% of language students), followed by pathway programs leading to a degree, diploma, or certificate at a university or college (12%). The French segment welcomed 1,914 international students, which represented 41% of French language students.
  • The most popular course duration has remained relatively unchanged since 2019. Most language students (46% in 2021 and 45% in 2019) opted for 4 to 12-week programs. The second most popular course duration was 13 to 24 weeks, accounting for 25% of students in 2021, compared to 20% in 2019.
  • Ontario remained the top provincial destination for language students in Canada. While in 2020 it accounted for over half of all students, in 2021 it gained market share from other provinces. The second largest destination by student numbers was British Columbia (21%), followed by Quebec (10%). Institutions located in Quebec taught the vast majority of French language students (80%), followed by New Brunswick at 17%.

Current and future issues

Institutions offering language programs to international students are diverse, thus experiences and challenges vary accordingly.

While border closures and travel restrictions were the major challenges in 2020, an ongoing issue will be visa processing times and difficulties experienced by students when applying for visas. Future issues are those that are being experienced by Canadian students as well. They include:

  • Inflation;
  • Staff shortages, such as administrative employees and teachers; and
  • Lack of accommodation for students and, consequently, the increase in the price of available accommodation.

Recommendations from LC membership (State of the Language Education Sector in Canada 2021 Survey Report)

  • Optimize visa processing to reflect market conditions; and
  • Providing business development opportunities, such as support programs for technology andFootnote 2 training to adapt their businesses;
  • Providing resources for students' mental health.


  • Beyond the impacts of the pandemic, what are the reasons for the decrease in the number of students in the languages sector since 2019?
  • What can be done to improve Canadian competitiveness in the sector?
  • How did the current iteration of the IES (2019-2024) impact the language sector?
  • How can the new IES better support the language sector? What ideas would you like to see explored in the next version of the IES?
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