15 July 2019
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 and, as a byproduct,
improve your language skills in English.
The Socio-Linguistic Bubble
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
(or any other English-speaking country, for that matter).
They create such a bubble by avoiding situations in which English is used.
In this bubble, it is possible for English-language learners (ELLs) to develop a good life,
one in which they socialize, work, and have productive lives within their cultural and linguistic community.
Why Break through the Bubble?
Before we get into ways to break through the socio-cultural bubble
(or, for that matter, 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. You should
continue nurturing within your community relationships that provide needed social support;
continue celebrating important dates; continue reading, writing, and improving your
linguistic skills in your native language; and so on.
Only you can choose whether or not to develop your language and social skills in
the host country—for whatever reason. 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 (rather than limit themselves to activities
available in their native language).
The bubble reduces opportunities for language acquisition and growth. Nonetheless,
if you live a fulfilling life that does not require high levels of English proficiency,
why should you change anything?
There is nothing wrong with staying close
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 English language skills is likely a byproduct of such activities.
These steps are based on my observations while teaching ELLs over the years.
In addition, I have experienced them myself as someone who has been in similar
situations while learning a new language where it was spoken.
this worksheet to keep track of your progress as you apply these steps.
The first two steps provide the groundwork for the other steps.
Such groundwork will later help you with the steps requiring more active engagement.
You can take these steps sequentially or 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 ESL classroom or language community, they have difficulty
identifying their own interests.
Interestingly, as I question them further, sometimes they dismiss interests that
they consider “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,”
without realizing that food and cooking is an interest many people pursue.
Start by figuring out what your hobbies and passions are or what you consider “fun.”
Do so without judging the “value” of your interests.
- How do you spend your free time? Entertaining at home? Cooking or baking?
Playing computer games or board games? Reading? Posting photos online?...
List as many activities as you can think of.
- What topics are you drawn to when you read or when you talk to people?
The news? Pop culture? Science and technology? Child rearing?...
- What are things you would like to learn more about?
Here is a list of activities of activities and topics that may give you some extra ideas.
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.) This could include anything, including for example,
- 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
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.
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
from a public library in Oklahoma announcing various activities.
In a similar search for “comic book reading club in Boston,” I found
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.
Classes at Wholefoods has classes for adults and children. Interested in
astronomy? Search “astronomy clubs near me.” 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 opportunties” or “community service opportunties” 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
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. Go nuts!
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 you participate in activities that are based on your interests, the
people you meet 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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