A 10-minute read.
Written for advanced ESL students. If you prefer, read the basic-intermediate version.
English as a second language (ESL) learners living in the United States sometimes create a “socio-cultural bubble,” in which they stay within their cultural and linguistic community (Franco).
As a result, they limit their exposure to English, which can slow down and even prevent language learning. I propose five steps to break through the bubble that may lead result in improving your language skills in English.
The Socio-Cultural Bubble
In a previous article, I discussed the “socio-cultural bubble,” a common occurrence among English as a second language (ESL) learners living in the United States.
(Of course, that applies to language learners living in any other English-speaking country.) They create such a “bubble” by avoiding situations in which English is used.
In this socio-cultural bubble, it is possible for English-language learners (ELLs) to develop a good life. They socialize, work, and have productive lives within their own cultural and linguistic community while avoiding situations requiring them to use English. However, they also limit their opportunities by avoiding interactions outside their cultural and linguistic communities.
Why Break through the Bubble?
Before we get into ways to break through the socio-cultural bubble (or the ESL bubble as Przymus proposes), we should establish something important: There is nothing wrong with maintaining close ties to your cultural and linguistic community.
You should not feel “guilty” about speaking your native language in your day-to-day life. If you so choose, you should continue nurturing the relationships that provide needed social support in your community; continue celebrating important dates; continue reading, writing, and improving your linguistic skills in your native language; and so on.
Only you can choose how to develop your language and social skills in the host country—for whatever reason and to whatever extent. Some ELLs want to get ahead professionally or to be able to help their children in school. Others simply want to be able to participate in activities in which English is needed; they do not want to limit themselves to the activities available in their native language.
Living in the bubble likely reduces opportunities for language acquisition and growth. Nonetheless, despite any possible drawbacks, if you live a fulfilling life without the need for high levels of English proficiency, why should you change anything?
There is nothing wrong with maintaining close ties to your cultural and linguistic community.
5 Steps to Break through the Socio-Cultural Bubble
Below are five recommended steps you can take if you consider expanding your social and cultural sphere to include activities where English is used. Acquiring language skills may be a desirable byproduct of such activities.
These steps are based on my observations while teaching ELLs over the years. I have also experienced firsthand them myself while learning a new language where it was spoken.
Download this worksheet to keep track of your progress as you apply these steps.
Step 1 and Step 2 provide the groundwork for the other steps. They prepare you with the later steps, which require more active engagement. You can take these steps one at a time or both at the same time.
Step 1. Identify Your Interests
I come across many ELLs who want to break through the bubble but do not know how to get started. They cannot think of any activities they can engage in where speaking English is required. When I ask them what they might be interested in doing outside the context of their language communities or outside the ESL classroom, they have difficulty identifying their own interests.
Interestingly, when I question them further, sometimes they dismiss interests that they consider too “mundane.” For example, if they enjoy cooking and I say that seems to be one of their interests, they quickly respond, “Oh, no. That’s just something I do everyday.” They do not realize that their mundane interest in food and cooking are impressive interests in gastronomy and culinary art.
- Identify Your Own Interests
Start by figuring out what your hobbies and passions are or what you consider “fun.” Do not judge the value of your interests. They are important to you! That is all that matters.
Here is a list of activities of activities and topics that may give you some extra ideas.
How do you spend your free time? Entertaining at home? Cooking or baking? Playing computer games or board games? Reading? Posting photos online? Listening to music?
List as many activities as you can think of no matter how “silly” or “unimportant” you think they are. (Remember: Do not judge the value of your interests.).
What topics are you drawn to when you read or when you talk to people? The news? Pop culture? Science and technology? Child rearing? Family? Your job? Education?
List as many topics as you can come up with.
What are things you would like to learn more about?
List anything else that is important to your—anything that makes you feel alive.
Step 2. Learn about the Non-ESL Community
The second step is to learn about the English-speaking community at the country, state, and local levels. The internet can be a good source of information. (Just make sure to find reputable, trustworthy sources.)
- Find out What is Around You
To learn about your non-ESL community, you can do investigate any of the following:
- the history of the country, state, and town;
- what is happening politically;
- what major urban areas are like;
- the demographics in the country, state, and town;
- what the educational system is like;
- anything else you might be interested to learn about your community.
Gathering information about where you live will help you understand the culture and what people value in the country, state, and town. You will have things to talk about when you meet new people. It will help you understand events going on in the community. When people mention something related to the community, you will understand what they mean.
Keep working on this step as long as you would like, but do not let it stop you from taking the next steps.
As you are completing Step 2, you can start taking the next steps. Steps 3, 4 and 5 are about actually engaging in activities outside the socio-cultural bubble.
Step 3. Research (Non-ESL) Available Resources
Technology makes it relatively easy to find out what (non-ESL) resources are available to you. Depending on the interests you identified in Step 1, search the web for activities.
For example, out of curiosity, I searched “board games in Dallas” and found Common Ground Games, where you can play board games with others.
- Ideas for Resources
Public libraries provide many free and paid classes and programs all over the country.
In fact, if you have difficulty finding activities, visit your local library and ask a librarian to help you.
While searching for activities, I ran into a free event at a library.
I also found this tweet from a public library in Oklahoma announcing various activities.
In a similar search for “comic book reading club in Boston,” I found The Boston Sci-Fi/Fantasy Meetup Group, which holds readings and discussions.
Would you like to improve your cooking? There are cooking lessons all over the country. Cooking Classes at Wholefoods has classes for adults and children.
Interested in astronomy? Search “astronomy clubs near me.”
Interested in gardening? Arts and craft? Well, you get the point. The possibilities are endless; it all depends on your interests.
In online sources such as Facebook or Meetup.com, you can find many activities, clubs, and interest groups. (Please see “Disclaimer” at the end of this article.)
Consider community service opportunities in your area. Search the internet for “volunteer work opportunities” or “community service opportunities” near you. Look into organizations such as
Points of Light.
You are likely to find many ways to get involved, meet people, and contribute to your community. (Before joining an organization, research it well to make sure they are reputable and suit your personal beliefs and needs.)
Note about ESL activities. If you find ESL-related activities that you might be interested in, you should consider them, too.
However, keep in mind that these will help you develop your language skills, but they may not necessarily create socialization opportunities outside of the “ESL bubble.”
Step 4. Do What You Already Do (But Go Non-ESL)
Now it is time to get out of your comfort zone and actually start participating in non-ESL activities. If you feel anxious or apprehensive about it, start with something you are already familiar with. For example, if you are active in a house of worship, find out where you can engage in similar activities in a house of worship where English is used. If you are taking an ESL course, find out what non-ESL activities you can join in the same institution.
Feeling anxious or intimidated is normal. Nonetheless, remember, you are in control. If you try something out, give yourself a chance to get used to it. If you are still uncomfortable with it or it does not seem like a good fit, you can always go back to the list you put together in Step 3 and try something else.
Step 5. Try New Activities
Once you have taken Step 4, think of new activities. With a bit of effort and some luck, you may even find an activity you want to continue doing for a long time. In that case, keep engaging in your newly found activity.
You could also try additional activities. If you are unsure what you could do, refer to the lists you created in Step 1. You can try something completely new. Take a pottery or yoga class. Improve your photography by joining an amateur group or taking a course in your local college.
You also probably listed several options in Step 3 for activities that you wanted to consider. Use your lists to expand outside of the bubble even further.
Don’t Forget the Whole Purpose
The idea behind “breaking through the bubble” is to expand your socio-cultural circle.
For some people, it is difficult to “break the ice” when you meet someone new;
however, when participating in activities you are interested in,
you run into people who share those interests. That makes breaking the ice easier.
With Step 2, you have been learning about the community, so you can understand
other people’s perspectives and have common things to talk about. If there is
something you do not quite understand, just ask them.
When you show a genuine interest in people, they love talking about themselves,
their culture, and their community.
Things may go differently for different language learners depending on their
English language ability. However, if you want to break through the bubble,
you need to take the first step.
Franco, Marc “Learning English in the United States and the Socio-Cultural Bubble (a Case Study).” Snap Language. https://snaplanguage.io/passages/2019-06-19
Przymus, Steve Daniel. "Imagining and moving beyond the ESL bubble: Facilitating communities of practice through the ELL Ambassadors program." Journal of Language, Identity & Education 15.5 (2016). https://bit.ly/2Jblact
Photo: "Pottery"Mahir Uysal on Unsplash (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Disclaimer: Programs and resources were mentioned in this article to provide
examples only. These mentions do not indicate that Snap Language endorses such resources.
Udpdated July 17, 2019: Added a paragraph about community service opportunities.
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