Study English online free


How Canadians Feel about Bugs

You probably know that the temperature in Canada drops below the freezing point in the winter.

This means that:

  • there are almost no bugs visible in the winter;
  • bugs do not grow very big in Canada;
  • bugs are quite easy to control; and
  • if there are bugs in a hotel or business, it probably means that the building is not being properly cleaned.

Many Canadians are afraid of large bugs because they are not accustomed to seeing them.

This can be challenging for Canadians who travel for the first time to a hot country. When they return home, they may tell stories about how big the bugs were. It is not uncommon to hear someone respond, “That’s disgusting! I could never travel there because I hate bugs.”

Many Canadians associate crawling bugs, in a building, with uncleanliness and disease.


What does CALL 911 mean?

In most of North America, 911 is the number to phone for emergency services.

To call 911 means the same thing as to phone 911.

When you call 911, you talk to a trained person who asks you what the problem is. He or she will also ask you what your address is.  As soon as 911 receives your call, they send the police, an ambulance and a firetruck.

If you phone from a landline (not a cell phone), they can trace your call to your address, so you can receive emergency help even if you cannot speak.


John’s wife fell down the stairs and was in terrible pain, so he called 911.

What is a GARAGE SALE?


A garage sale is a private sale that is held in one’s garage, driveway, or yard.  If someone doesn’t have a garage, they may have a yard sale.  The items for sale are priced and placed on tables. You can purchase used household items at a garage sale, usually for very low prices.

Typically, garage sales take place on the weekend, but some start as early as Thursday. Often, the hours for the garage sale are written on the signs.

Generally, Canadians do not barter for prices.

It is culturally inappropriate in Canada to ask for a lower price in a store, or for most services.

However, it is okay to gently barter at a garage sale.  For example, if you are purchasing more than one item, it is okay to ask for a better price.

Be careful, though.  If you are aggressive in your bartering and you offend the seller, he/she may not sell to you.

GOOD MANNERS – quiet from 10:00 pm – 8:30 am

Many Canadians go to bed around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.

As a general rule, people should not be disturbed in their homes by noise from neighbours, or phone calls, between 9:30 p.m. and approximately 8:45 a.m. on weekdays.

With adult students these times are a little later (e.g., 10:30 pm – 9:30 a.m.), depending on their academic schedule.

If you share a dormitory room with someone, you should try not to disturb them with light or noise during these hours.

If you live in Canada, it is culturally appropriate not to disturb your neighbours during these times (e.g., mowing your lawn, playing loud music, entertaining guests outside).



GOOD MANNERS – responding “no” to an invitation

If you are invited to something, and you say, “No”, it is expected in Canadian culture that you will give an explanation for why you won’t, or can’t attend.

To say “no” without an explanation sounds rude.

Examples of how to politely say no to an invitation:

– Thank you for including us, but Jo’s office Christmas party is that same evening and we said we would go to it, so unfortunately we won’t be able to join you for dinner.

– We would like to be there, but our daughter has a concert that evening so we can’t make it. We would love to be invited next time, if you have another party!

– We really appreciate your invitation, but my elderly mother lives with us and we don’t like to leave her alone in the evenings. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone we can ask to stay with her, so we don’t go out much.

– It’s so nice of you to invite us but we have small children and we don’t have any family here who can babysit. Can we take a raincheck for 15 years from now?!  (This is a humorous way of saying you will not be available until your children are old enough to stay home alone.)

– I am sorry, but we will need to cancel our plans with you for Friday evening. Unfortunately, something has come up with Maria’s family, and we need to drive to Calgary this weekend.  (At this point, your listener may say, “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope everything is okay?” You are then expected to give a brief explanation which explains whether the situation is distressing to you or not.)

  • Examples:
    • Her brother is having health problems and he has taken a bad turn.
    • Oh, yes. Everything is okay. Her sister phoned and she has to move unexpectedly so we want to go help her.

Greetings – How are you?

Many people find greetings a little confusing when they come to Canada.

A common greeting is, “Hi, how are you?”

It’s important to understand that this is simply a greeting, and not a sincere question.

Don’t feel offended when the questioner doesn’t want to hear about your health.

When someone asks, “How are you?” it is appropriate to give a short answer.  It is good social etiquette to respond positively, unless you happen to be ill or have a large problem in your life.

A customary answer is, “Good, thank you.*  And you?”

If you are not doing well, you can say something like:

  • Not so great. I’ve had a terrible cold for a week now.
  • I’m okay, thanks. I’ve been better.
  • I’m alright. It’s been a long week.

Do not give a lot of detail.  Remember, this is a greeting.  Keep it short.

If you said you are not doing well, and the listener is concerned and has time for a conversation, a follow-up question might be asked.  If the listener does not have time for a conversation, they might say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and then follow it with something that fits the circumstances.  (e.g., “I hope you feel better soon.”)

You should then say, “thanks” or “thank you” and ask the other person how they are:

  • How are you?
  • How about you?
  • And you?
  • How are you doing?

*Note:  The grammatically correct response to this question is “Fine, thank you” but in everyday English, most people respond with, “Good, thanks.”

Do you know when to say, “Good evening” and when to say, “Good night”?

They don’t have the same meaning!

What is the Meaning of WHAT’S UP?

This greeting is casual and informal.  It means, “What is going on?” or “What’s happening in your life?”

When someone asks, “How are you?” the focus is on your state of being.

When someone asks, “What’s up?” the focus is on what you are doing.

It is best to keep your answer brief.

If someone asks, “What’s up?”, you might give, for example, one of the following answers:

  • “Not much. It’s been pretty busy at work lately. What’s happening with you?”
  • “My brother is here visiting for a couple of weeks, so that’s good. How about you?”
  • “Nothing new, thanks. What about you?”

In Canada, these questions are greetings. Sometimes newcomers to Canada feel offended because these questions seem superficial, but Canadians do not view “greeting questions” as conversation.  These questions provide an opportunity for a short, friendly exchange with someone.

The greeting gives each person a few seconds to decide if both people want to (or have time to) talk further.  If both people seem interested in more conversation, then they ask more questions.

If you phone someone, and they ask, “What’s up?” they are asking, “What is the reason for your call?”



What is Potluck?


You are a newcomer to Canada and you get invited to a potluck. What is it? What is expected of you? Part of learning English is learning how to adapt to a different culture.

Potluck is a wonderful tradition here in Canada! It is a popular, relaxed way to host a group meal.  Sometimes a group of neighbours, a church, or a business will have a potluck.

Each person (or family) contributes food for the group, with the idea that the combined dishes will provide a complete meal (i.e., hot dishes, salads and desserts).

The food is typically arranged on long tables, buffet style. The guests serve themselves, seat informally, and visit while they eat.

What Should I Take to a Potluck?


Traditionally, the food at a potluck is left to chance, or “luck”. If everyone brings the same dish, then that’s the way it is!  I once went to a potluck in the summer where most of the guests had brought potato salad! Everyone thought it was quite funny, and we enjoyed tasting the many different potato salad dishes.

You may be invited to a potluck where the host, or coordinator, asks you to bring something specific (e.g., a hot dish and buns), ensuring that there will be a variety of food at the meal.

We were invited to a potluck where seafood was specially purchased from the Maritimes.  The guests all contributed money to pay for the fresh seafood and we all brought potluck salads and desserts.

I love an international potluck, where everyone brings a traditional dish from their home country!

Do I Take Drinks too, or Only Food?

Typically, the host provides a non-alcoholic cold beverage, plus tea and coffee.

Since potlucks often happen in a community family setting, there may or may not be alcohol. (For example, at a school potluck, there would be no alcohol.) If you are uncertain, ask the person who invited you. If there is alcohol, typically each family would take their own alcoholic beverages. (If you are told that the potluck will be BYOB it means you should bring your own beverages. BYOB stands for bring your own bottle, or bring your own beer.)

Depending on the setting, you may be asked to bring your own beverages, as well as your own cutlery, plates, etc.

Sometimes a potluck is outdoors. For example, neighbours may agree to have a potluck at a park. In cases like that, you will probably be expected to bring your own dishes, so that one person doesn’t have to supply cutlery, plates, dishes and napkins for the whole group. You can always ask the person who invited you. 

How much food should I take to a potluck?

If you are invited to a potluck, you should take enough food to feed your family, or group, plus a little extra for unplanned guests.

If you haven’t already been to a potluck, I hope you have the opportunity.

Potluck is a great chance to try new dishes, get some new recipes, and enjoy visiting with both new and familiar friends! 

Understanding How Canadians Think about Time

learning english online - time

North Americans tend to view time as a possession.

Many Canadians feel responsible for the time they are given each day, and they try to schedule their time carefully.

In English, there are many verbs associated with time that reflect this attitude. We talk about:

• wasting time
• killing time
• spending time
• saving time
• managing our time
• budgeting time
• having (or not having) time
• giving someone time
• taking someone’s time
• running out of time

Because of this, when you phone someone, or stop to have a conversation, it is polite to ask the other person for permission to use their time. Some examples follow:

• Do you have a few minutes?
• Can you give me a sec’? (short for second, used when you are asking someone to wait for you for a very short time)
• Do you have time for this? I don’t want to keep you.
• I won’t take up a lot of your time, but I wonder if I could ask you a quick question.
• If this isn’t a good time for you, I can come back / phone back later.

To use a lot of someone’s time without asking for their permission is generally seen as inconsiderate. If you want to discuss something that may be time-consuming, you should schedule in advance a time to meet.


What does it Mean When Someone Says: I HAVE A FEW MINUTES or

If someone says they have a few minutes, they are politely saying that they are busy, but they are willing to give you some of their time.

It is a polite way of saying, “I need to keep this conversation short.”


Jo: Mr. Smith, I am wondering if I could ask you some questions about the upcoming changes in my job.

Mr. Smith: I have a few minutes now. What would you like to know?