19 June 2019
A 10-minute read.
Written for intermediate ESL students. If you prefer, read the advanced 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
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). According to Shumin, “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 can practice the language, you are exposed to new vocabulary, and you have access to the language all around you. Eventually, it all “just falls into place.”
Nonetheless, after many years as an instructor of ESL in the United States, experience has shown me that living in the United States does not necessarily mean you will learn English quickly or well.
Bo’s Case (Being in a Bubble)
Let me tell you about a student named Bo. This scenario is actually based on real ELLs I have taught over the years.
Bo was taking an ESL course for the first time. He knew only enough grammar and vocabulary to express basic ideas. Even when Bo was able to put ideas together, it was difficult to understand him because of pronunciation problems and lack of fluency. He worked hard and was making progress; however, progress was slow.
During a conversation halfway through the course, students were telling me how long they had been living in the United States. Many of Bo’s classmates, who could communicate much better than he could, 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.
- At home, Bo and his wife spoke Bo’s native language because they wanted their children to be bilingual. That made sense.
- 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. That made sense, too.
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’s large circle of friends spoke his native language, so English was not required to socialize.
- Bo participated in 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, everyday tasks like grocery shopping, dry cleaning, or getting his car fixed required no English.
In summary, Bo had created a “socio-cultural bubble” in which English was not required. It was almost as if he still lived in his home country. He carried that bubble around wherever he went, and it worked for him! He had a full, productive life.
The ESL Classroom
Deciding to join an ESL class after such a long time was a sign that Bo wanted to expand beyond the socio-cultural bubble he had created. The ESL classroom was a good starting point for him, 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.
In many language courses, the focus is not necessarily on everyday, socio-cultural aspects of the language. ELLs spend a limited amount of time in the classroom. Students may not be getting sufficient, continuous time practicing the language. The social interactions that do occur are generally related only to what happens in the classroom. To get students to talk, instructors use prompts that do not always occur in “real-life” (Mohr).
Creating Your Own Experiences
There is nothing “wrong” with Bo’s experience. The point of this article is not to criticize any ELL’s personal experience living in the United States. Bo had a good life, and how much English to learn was up to him to decide. One main point here is that living in the United States does not guarantee that you will learn English. That is up to 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 the language learner to seek out other experiences outside of 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, it is up to the individual to decide how to deal with learning English while living in the United States. 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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