The last seven months have been one of the most difficult phase in my life, mentally speaking, even more than when I decided to quit medical school several years back. This is due to the pressure I have to proof my ability and the high stakes game I played to extend my working permit in Quebec, Canada. The beautiful summer days in Montreal slowly turned into a cold winter, pushing me toward a cycle of hope and despair as my frustration grew day-by-day.
About a year ago, on May 2018, I graduated from a 1-year Master’s program from McGill University after a one year study period. I was a top student in the class, clearing 4.0 GPA, graduated in the fastest time possible (9 months), and had been securing full-time job offer three months earlier. At the time, I didn’t know that later I would regret my decision to not extend my study period for another six months. On the graduation day and throughout the Summer, I was one happy graduate student ready to face the world, until the truth slapped me hard on the face in two months later.
As a graduate student, the most rational path to secure a temporary work permit is through the Post Graduate Working Permit (PGWP) program, allowing graduates to work in Canada for the same length of their study program and up to three years maximum. For me, this means that instead of receiving a three years working permit as most of my friends did, I only got a one year permit. One year is not an enough time to apply for the Quebec Skilled Worker Program (QSWP) that commonly takes over 1.5 years.
Feared of losing my well-paying job and getting kicked out of the country, I was left with three choices that allow me to work in Canada: find another job in Toronto and apply for express entry there, ask my employer to apply for an LMIA, or take the French exam and apply for the Programme Experience Quebecoise (PEQ). I tried the last two. My boss and employer in general are very nice to me that when I asked them to apply an LMIA for me, they contacted their lawyer and initiate the process quickly after. But that was a “Plan B”, since there is no guarantee that a positive LMIA will be given and the process may took so much time that my current working permit might expire before I get a new one. I did take an A1 French course one year before, but practically I forgot everything since I did not use it during my study period.
So I took the hard way as my “Plan A”, to succeed the TEFAQ exam with B2 levels or above, as required by the Quebec government for immigrants. The catch? To do it before my current work permit expires. Assuming that It took 1 month for my CSQ to be processed and another 1 month for applying a bridging working permit and permanent residence application, I knew that at the latest, I had to pass the French exam in the middle of April. Pass that deadline and I will find myself unemployed and back in my home country (it is not something terrible, but Canada offers me an opportunity that is unavailable in my home country).
I learned all of that in early August, after consulting one of the immigration lawyer that cost me a big dent on my budget. Determined not to give up without a fight, I made my battle plan for the year. My friend and I took a private course with an experienced French teacher, whose hourly rate could buy a nice dinner, and I took up the online program offered by Quebec government called “Francisation En Ligne”. The later has helped me a lot in improving my grammar and listening, I recommend anyone that has access to the program to supplement their studies with it. In the program there are 16 chapters, each of them containing 6 sub-chapters that feels like forever to finish when you are tired. But the good thing is that once you finished the lessons properly, you have a good grasp of the basic French grammar and are able to extract information from a conversation.
In order to succeed, I had to drop everything and grind myself to be discipline. No hanging out in the weekend, going straight home to study after work and limiting my entertainment time to 4-6 hours a week. It also means studying on the online platform for three hours a day, one hour in the morning before work and another two after, usually completing one to two sub-chapters in a day. On the weekend, I spent about 6 hours a day, completing two to three sub-chapters. And I did complete all the 16 basic-intermediate chapters in the middle of December, with a count of 338 hours of study and 70-80% understanding of the materials.
And every week from August to January, me and my friend took the private classes to brush up our grammar and speaking skills, totaling 32 hours of study. In addition to that, I also took a private speaking and listening courses to improve my pronunciations and vocabulary, totaling 7.5 hours since November. For the desert and final blow, I took a TEFAQ preparation course at McGill University, which provides me with exactly what I need: speaking practice with French natives, tons of listening mock exam, and tips on improving those skills. At the end of the course, I felt much more confident in my speaking skills and were getting consistent 75-85 score on the listening mocks.
In summary, here is the effort I took to learn French in 7 months:
- Francisation En Ligne, provided for free by the Quebec government, useful for understanding basic structure of French and increase my vocabulary. Spent 338 hours, CAD$ 0. Best thing ever for Quebec immigrants.
- Private courses with my friend, with an experienced French teacher, useful for polishing the grammar I learned from the FEL program and practice my speaking skills. Spent 33 hours, around CAD$ 1500.
- Private courses alone for speaking and listening, useful for learning the phrases and practice. Spent 7.5 hours, around CAD$ 300.
- TEFAQ preparation course, at McGill, useful for learning the tips on the exam and practice both speaking and listening. Spent 36 hours, around CAD$ 450.
- Prepmyfutures website, useful for training on oral comprehension. Spent 10 hours.
- Read two books in French and translate the difficult vocabulary. Spent 32 hours, CAD$ 24.
- Listen to Radio Canada every morning on the walk to office. Spent 15 hours.
Overall, I spent about 470 hours learning French, which cost me around CAD$ 2300 in 7 months. I knew that there were learning center that offers 100 hours courses to prepare for the exam, but in my opinion this is hardly enough to attain the real B2 level.
What would I improved if I had more time? First, I would take a weekly class at night or weekend, since there would be more friends to connect and practice with on the off-hours. Second, I would reduce my target to finish 1 chapter on the FEL course each week instead of 2 to 3, which would reduce my stress level and improve retention. Third, I would buy a French grammar practice book to get used to passé composé of more verbs, and also to train converting verbs into its subjonctif and conditionnel form. Fourth, I would find more time to practice French off-hours with my peers. Some even suggest me to find a French-speaking girlfriend! I estimated that with these adjustment and learning at a more relaxed pace, I would completed the whole thing I did in 15 months instead of 7 months.
And what mistakes did most people often fall into? I observed that many of those in the same TEFAQ class as I am were too passive in their learning. Rather than following teacher-centered learning, we should try student-centered learning where the progression of our skills is based on the effort we put into learning the language and use French classes as a supplement rather than the primary source of learning. Had I followed a traditional courses as my primary learning source, it would take me 27 months to attain B2 level (A1-B2, 3 months for every level).
In the end, I did took the TEFAQ exam earlier than my original plan, on February 15th. And to my relieve, I got C1 for the oral comprehension and B2 for the oral expression. All the hard work paid off! Despite all the pressure and frustration, I believe that I have become a stronger person mentally after enduring the stresses in the past year. It was not a pleasant experience, but nevertheless it allows me to push beyond what I knew was possible. So, if anyone ask me if it is possible to pass the TEFAQ exam in 7 months (while working full time or studying), my answer would be: Si on veut, on peut.