Unearthing the Secrets of Successful Adult ELLs (Part 2)

In a recent blog post, I described a class project in which my intermediate-level adult ESL students interviewed relatives and friends who had successfully made the leap to fluency in English as adults.  Their assignment was to unearth the secrets of these successful ELLs.

A key piece of advice that one of my students garnered from an uncle in Brazil was:

Run away from people who speak your language. Be in contact with as many English speakers as possible. Ask them to correct you.

In her own blog, Caitlin Hamstra of Central Michigan University wondered whether it was realistic to encourage students to “run away” from people who speak their language if those people are their loved ones: children, spouses and other family members. “Learners who have children,” wrote Caitlin, “want to pass along their language and culture to their children, especially when they’re so far from home; and many spouses don’t speak English. How can they reconcile their family/emotional needs versus their language needs?”

Good point! It’s worth clarifying that this advice was certainly not intended to discourage students from  speaking their L1 at home with their family. Rather, it is designed to encourage adult ESL students in the United States to resolve to speak English whenever they have an opportunity to interact with the English-speaking world around them.

This semester, my students took this advice to heart in a variety of courageous ways. Here, in a nutshell, are some of the steps they took to expand their opportunities to speak English:

  • In what was a major advance for several of my students from Central and South America, they began to stop asking to speak to a Spanish-speaking customer service representative when they needed help with a cell phone or a utility bill, choosing to transact their business in English rather than Spanish.
  • Students have reported declining the use of a translator at parent-teacher conferences at their children’s school.
  • A Brazilian student rejected repeated offers from a hotel reservation clerk to confirm her reservation in Portuguese rather than English.
  • An Iranian stay-at-home mom who rarely spoke English outside of class began to invite her son’s classmates to her home for play dates. The mother of one of these playmates lingered to chat one afternoon and then became a regular conversation partner, providing 2 hours of weekly conversation practice for my student.
  • Students who reported being too frightened to answer the telephone in their own homes began to pick up the phone when it rang, rather than waiting for their English-speaking children or spouse to answer it.
  • A Peruvian student who had previously deferred to her husband to help her children with their homework began to take a more active role in her children’s schoolwork.
  • A Panamanian student alerted the class to the availability of ESL “meet-ups” in New York City, where speakers of many different languages get together informally to practice their English.  See, for example, The “We Enjoy English” Meetup group, or the “Speak English! American History and Culture Discussion” group.   Similar groups in other cities can be found by Googling “ESL Meetups” plus the name of your city.

Additional strategies that other students have used to boost the amount of English they speak outside of class are summarized in my December 2012 TESOL Connections article, “Self-Directed Learning: Personal Speaking Plans for Adult ELLs.”

Interestingly, the issue of speaking English at home with family members was one that my students discussed at length among themselves in class this semester. Some students, whose school-age children are bilingual in English and the family’s L1, actually found it helpful to engage their children, for a couple of hours each week, as informal conversation partners, usually by reading school books or library books in English out loud together. They reported that this was an important way for them to stay connected to their children’s American school life and that they enjoyed having their children help them with pronunciation and vocabulary.

Other students, whose spouses’ English language skills were more advanced than their own, planned to enlist them as informal “conversation partners” for a few hours each week.

What novel ways are your students finding to practice speaking English outside of class?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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3 Responses to Unearthing the Secrets of Successful Adult ELLs (Part 2)

  1. Debra D Harris says:

    Great article- I understand “Run away from people who speak your language” as a type of cultural suicide in an effort to integrate oneself into the English language. In my experience of facilitating family groups in the Adult Detention Center I encounter many students who are reluctant to make such a leap of faith. What strategies would you suggest to help them overcome their fear (learning barrier) and or embrace their second chance at freedom without feeling they are turning away from their cultural backgrounds?

  2. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew, and for the link to your website.

  3. That piece of advice to “Run away from people who speak your language. Be in contact with as many English speakers as possible. Ask them to correct you.” is a key one without a doubt. A lot of students think that coming to class to doing the Homework will be enough. Far from it, especially the way a lot of times ESL is taught – with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing and repetition.
    For that to happen the there needs to be a visceral desire to learn English and the understanding that there is critical need for that contact to happen, as one has to get over so many hurdles, some of which are alluded to or implied by the examples quoted later.
    For many those who believe that classes are enough, teachers need to not just tell their students of the importance of making contacts outside of the class, the experience in the classes themselves have to convey that truth. What that indefinable something is, we need to talk about and address. In this post here, http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/best-language-learning/ there are some factors I have included which will give you pointers to that.

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