This week I received a well-written e-mail from the husband of one of my ESL students. Both are from Colombia. He asked me what he could do to help his wife really acquire enough English to make a new life in Austin. We are still on summer break from our Austin Community College Adult Education ESL classes and he was concerned that she still wasn't as functional in English as she wanted to be. His English was excellent and he was wondering if they should stop using Spanish at home.

His query started me thinking about the whole problem of individual responsibility for acquiring English outside of the classroom and what can be done to accelerate the process for serious ESL students. The problem is multifaceted and affects the lives, opportunities available to persons in this country who are competent in English, and even our national economy, in terms of producing more successful taxpayers among immigrants.

First of all, a rule of thumb is that families rarely have success in changing languages at home. In addition to the fact that people normally continue in the language that they have been using, there is no real reason to give up one's native language in an effort to acquire a new one. People can be functional in two or more languages if they take responsibility for really acquiring and maintaining the second language (L2).

If a family has children, who are born and reared in this country, the children will often grow up more competent and comfortable in English than either parent. Research has shown that true bilingualism for children is best accomplished when L1 and L2 come from different human sources. Children learn to communicate comfortably in either language from family and peers and are often almost unaware of the fact that they are using two languages. If my student and her husband have children here and the parents want the children to be bilingual, the mother should continue using Spanish with her husband, and the children and the husband should use English. When a single source uses both languages, the children can grow up somewhat confused with both languages and end up not really competent in either.

Back to the wife, who I will call "María," the question is how can she acquire enough English to meet her own potential in this country? Is nine hours a week in an ESL class enough? The answer is clearly "no." One of the problems in central Texas is that a Spanish speaker can live here for 20 years and still not acquire a functional background in English. Many Spanish speakers work with other Spanish speakers, go home to a Spanish speaking family, hang out with Spanish speaking friends, watch Spanish language TV, listen to Spanish language radio and attend church services conducted in Spanish. This cuts into the primary factor in language acquisition; motivation. It's really quite simple. If one doesn't need a language, new languages don't happen! I'm not just pointing the finger at Spanish-speaking students, although they have the most extensive problems because of our state's Hispanic history. I have had Vietnamese-speaking students who work in Vietnamese restaurants, go home to Vietnamese speaking families, watch Vietnamese movies on DVD's, listen to Vietnamese music, etc. The more internationalized our country becomes, the easier it is to not have to learn English. The problem is that most of the real opportunities here are for English speakers, native or not.

Wanting and needing are two different things. I've had several Americans tell me that they "want to learn French." I always ask why. I get answers like, "It's such a beautiful language and it sounds so nice." That doesn't work. Many a home has dusty audio language courses in closets, that weren't used past the fourth page. If a person tells me that he is going to live and work in France for two years, I tell him to "go for it." He will usually acquire French, because he will need it. There are U.S. Americans retired and living in several cities in Mexico that are favored by outsiders. Many of them haven't learned Spanish for all of the above reasons, sometimes after decades in the country. They shop in English-speaking stores, have English speaking housekeepers, watch cable TV in English, read locally available newspapers in English and spend most of their time with English-speaking friends. Many have taken Spanish courses, but not too many have succeeded in learning more than a few useful courtesy phrases.

So the bottom line is, what can a non-native speaker of English, living in the U.S.A. in an area where there are many others who speak his language, do to accelerate the English acquisition process.

1. First of all, the student needs to find an ESL program with small class sizes, and competent communication-based instruction, using English as the medium of instruction. Students should preferably be mixed in with students who speak other languages, so that the tendency to use the native language in class will be reduced during breaks and social times. Students should be carefully placed with others according to their beginning levels of English language proficiency.

2. The student and instructor need to work together to find out specifically what the student's life goals are and why English competence will enhance this process. Students will often ask how long this will take. The answer is up to the student, because no part-time ESL class will offer predictable results. I have an old training wheel from the Defense Language Institute English Language Center, which puts students from many different countries into intensive ESL training before they enter U.S. military training. Students are in small classes for four hours a day, followed by two hours in a supervised language laboratory, five days a week. To achieve an English Comprehension Level (ECL) score of 70, which is adequate for some military coursework, starting from ground zero in English, it takes an average of 28 weeks of full-time ESL training. To achieve a score of 80, which covers a broader spectrum of military training, it takes an average of 38 weeks. Multiply how many hours a week your students are in training and compare this to a 30-hour week at DLIELC over a period of months! You can see what the problem is. To get into a university with the equivalent of a 550 TOEFL would require a 90 ECL score! That often takes close to a year. Even a small measureable growth in global proficiency takes over 100 classroom hours, under the best of circumstances.

3. Serious ESL students who want to go into trades, professions and learning institutions that require real English proficiency, both in comprehension and production, are going to have to take the lion's share of personal responsibility for their own final results. Following are some of the things that they can do to raise the odds:

a. The student needs to take a look at his/her goals and figure out what can be changed in lifestyles to expose him/her to a maximum amount of spoken and written English.

b. Step one for adults is normally changing jobs, if one is in an environment where others speak his native language. If a student isn't working, he should find a job in an L2 environment where the employer can put the person in work that doesn't require too much English at first. This is not an easy process. At first, working with others who don't speak your native language can be very difficult, but the results are worth it. The best way to acquire a language is to have to use it and most colleagues at work will be supportive.

c. Step two is to instigate a change in one's social life. This is also not an easy process, but it can be done. If a student is single, one angle is to find housemates who are native speakers of English. I've been told by students, "It's hard to make friends with U.S. Americans." This is true compared to some cultures that are innately more gregarious and receptive to outsiders. However, there is an answer. I've noticed over the years that friendships in our culture are often based on common interests. If an immigrant is interested in tennis, it's not too hard to find Americans to play tennis with. If someone is interested in art, friends are easily found among fellow artists. Persons from other countries who have hobbies or avocations seem to have the easiest time meeting new people here. The social use of a new language is by far the best way to become competent, but it is generally the responsibility of the newcomer to first establish an interpersonal relationship and enter a network of new friends. There are even clubs and other organizations that welcome outsiders.

d. Reading English for pleasure is another useful step. Some instructors tend to push their students into reading "important" literature or magazines. I always tell my students to read whatever they want to read, as long as it is in English. Part of that process is also to wean the students away from using dictionaries that translate words into the native language. There are simple English/English dictionaries designed for ESL learners that are much more productive in moving to the big step, thinking in English, which should be their ultimate goal. Sometimes three or four new words must be learned in order to fully grasp the meaning of one word. In my opinion, reading out loud in class is a total waste of time. The hours are too precious and should be devoted to performance-based exercises, which include, but don't emphasize, written English. Reading can always be done alone and the more that the students read alone, the better they can become in all aspects of English. ESL instructors can accelerate their students' reading motivation by having them do book reports, which gives them further opportunity to write English.

e. Listening to English on the radio is an excellent way to enhance listening skills, without visual references as a crutch. Even for beginning students, who don't understand 90% of what is going on, the mind is subtly programmed to become more familiar with how English sounds. Even some high-frequency vocabulary items may be learned or reinforced, at least on the subconscious level. Public Radio has good voices and is generally less controversial than some other stations. Listening to the radio is best done passively. If language students are too intense on attempting to understand everything, which is impossible, they will become quickly frustrated. Television and movies are useful, but it is very easy to "turn off" one's mind to the listening parts and just watch the action.

I discuss all of the above with my students and ask them for more ideas on how to make English more a part of their lives. There is a distinct difference between my more gregarious and adventurous students and others who are "in a rut." Some have never thought about their own potential and the numerous opportunities that could be achieved by lifestyle changes, leading to truly better opportunities for themselves and their families. There really are no limits! However, the real responsibility for achieving these goals lies within the individuals and what they can do for themselves after class.

©2004 Ted Klein
Your questions or comments are always welcome.
Ted