19 June 2019
A 10-minute read.
Written for advanced ESL students. If you prefer, read the intermediate version.
In this article, I share what I have learned about the experience of many English as a second language (ESL) learners who are learning English while living in the United States. Although the focus is on ESL and the United States, the information likely applies to learning any language in a country where the language is spoken.
The Myth about Learning a Language Where it is Spoken
We all know that it is possible to learn English without living in an English-speaking country. Yet, many people believe that the best way to learn English well is to live in or at least spend time in an English-speaking country. Some even believe that it is the only way.
Developing communication skills in another language is a huge task for English language learners (ELLs), and it is known that “effective oral communication requires the ability to use the language appropriately in social interactions” (Shumin 204).
What better place is there to experience such interactions than living where you can socialize with native speakers?
If you already live in the United States, all language-learning problems are solved, right? You get to practice the language as it is spoken, you are exposed to new vocabulary every day, and you have access to rich, real-life materials all around you such as print media, radio, television, and so on. Eventually, it all “just falls into place.”
In my many years as an instructor of ESL in the United States, experience has shown me that living in the United States does not necessarily produce such an outcome.
Bo’s Case (Being in a Bubble)
Let me give you a scenario about a student named Bo. This scenario is “real” in that it is based on real ELLs I have taught over the years.
Bo was taking an ESL course for the first time. He had limited understanding of basic grammar structures, which was enough for him to get only basic ideas across. Bo struggled to communicate more complex ideas because he lacked the vocabulary to do so. Even when Bo was able to put ideas together, his pronunciation and lack of fluency made it difficult to understand him. He never missed class, and he worked very hard on his lessons. He was making progress, but you could tell that he was having a hard time. Progress was slow.
During a conversation halfway through the course, I was asking students how long they had been living in the United States. Many of Bo’s classmates, who could communicate much better than he, said they had been living in the U.S. between six months and three years. And Bo? Bo had been living in the United States for 30 years!
In other conversations with Bo, I found out a lot of interesting things about his life.
- He had met his American wife in his home country. They got to know each other in his native language, so they continued speaking it after they got married and moved to the United States. That made sense.
- He had three children. At home, Bo and his wife spoke to them in Bo’s native language. That is a great thing to do, and I am certain his children benefited from being bilingual.
- He was a very successful professional. His job required him to speak his native language all the time. So, he had no need to speak English at work.
Bo lived in a large urban center where many people spoke his native language. That made things easier as far as communicating beyond his home life.
- Bo had a large circle of personal friends, in which they spoke his native language, so Bo did not need to speak English to socialize.
- Bo was very involved in the community. He participated in a couple of groups that promoted his culture and language, so he did not need to use English to be active in the community.
- Bo found places around town where he could speak his native language. So, mundane things like grocery shopping, getting his suits dry cleaned, or getting his car fixed did not require him to use English.
Over the years, Bo had created a socio-cultural bubble in which English was not required. He carried that bubble around wherever he went. It worked for him! He had a full, productive life.
The ESL Classroom
Even though it took Bo many years to make the decision, joining an ESL class was a sign that he wanted to expand beyond the socio-cultural bubble he had created. The ESL classroom was a good starting point for Bo, but the classroom has limitations. Not all classrooms and instructors are the same, and not all classrooms provide students the same opportunities for social interaction.
There is a limited amount of time ELLs spend in the classroom. Students may not be getting sufficient, continuous time practicing the language. The social interactions that do occur are based on things that happen in a learning environment and leave out many other types of interaction in day-to-day life.
To create opportunities for practice, teachers often use techniques to elicit oral production with prompts such as “tell me more” or “do you know any words in English that say that?” (Mohr). These prompts are helpful to get students to communicate, but they do not necessarily occur in real-life interactions.
In many ESL courses, the focus is not necessarily on everyday, socio-cultural aspects of the language. Instead, instruction targets discrete skills such as listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary, and grammar. To acquire all aspects of the language, these and other skills need to be integrated so that genuine communication occurs. (See Shumin, for example, for the many factors involved in developing speaking skills.)
Creating Your Own Experiences
There is nothing “wrong” with Bo’s experience. The point of this article is not to bash any ELL’s personal experience living in the United States. Bo had a good life, and his decision about how well to learn English after living in the United States for 30 years was up to him. One main point here is that living in the United States does not guarantee that you will learn English. That is up to you, the language learner.
Another point is that joining an ESL course is a good way to learn English; it gives you access to an instructor who is trained to guide you through the language-learning process. It is a good starting point, but it has limitations. It is up to you, the language learner, to seek out other experiences outside of the classroom where you can put into practice what you learn in the classroom.
Finally, it is up to the language learner to decide how much of the language and culture to embrace. After many years as an instructor, I have identified different types of students when it comes to willingness to become part of the English-speaking community around them. Some fear that interacting closely with the English-speaking community will lead to the loss of their home language, culture, and identity. On the other hand, others see socializing outside of their linguistic community as an opportunity to add to their life experiences without the loss of their own language, culture, or identity.
Each language learner is different. Ultimately, the decision is up to the individual how to deal with learning English while living in the United States. And no decision is a bad one. Bo was a great person to get to know.
Mohr, Kathleen A. J., and Eric S. Mohr. "Extending English Language Learners' Classroom Interactions Using the Response Protocol." Reading Rockets, http://www.readingrockets.org/article/extending-english-language-learners-classroom-interactions-using-response-protocol
Shumin, Kang. "Factors to consider: Developing adult EFL students’ speaking abilities." Methodology in language teaching: An anthology of current practice 12 (2002): 204-211. https://bit.ly/2Lwirff
“The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country.” Antimoon, edited by Tomasz P. Szynalski, http://antimoon.com/other/myths-country.htm
Photo: Sharon Pittaway from Unsplash (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Photo: Markus Spiske from Pexels (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Updated 2022 09 22: Edits not affecting content.
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