Socialization versus language instruction

Article Summary: Almost every organization working with immigrants will face a similar dilemma. The individuals these organizations help usually need assistance with both spoken English and integration into the American culture.

It is entirely appropriate to help new arrivals with both needs. The difficulty comes, however, in that intense language study is inherently more stressful than the “fun” activities involved in teaching them about our own culture. Added to that is the natural desire on the part of each agency or organization to make these uncertain immigrant adults feel comfortable as they come to English language classes.

Too often, this dilemma results in inadequate English language instruction, and immigrant adults feel overwhelmed in their attempt to learn spoken English.

Teaching English to recent arrivals in the U.S. may be the most important contribution we can make to their future well-being. But learning English is not their only felt need. They often need help obtaining adequate training and trade licensing. Many families will need assistance with housing or children’s schooling. They will occasionally need assistance with insurance or legal issues. Writing letters for a non-English speaking neighbor is a great help when bureaucratic complexities become overwhelming.

I am particularly encouraged when I see this aid coming from private individuals and non-profit organizations. Many churches are sponsoring English language programs.

whenever a private organization is involved with language training, they often struggle with the balance between adequate English language instruction and socialization. Socialization is the process wherein the immigrant is accepted in his or her new country. It is vitally important. Aside from those they know at work, many immigrant adults have little contact with people from outside their own language community.

Their first evening at FCC was pleasant enough. AVladimir and Olga were invited to an English class at First Community Church (FCC). They had been in the United States for eight months. Yet, this was the first time they had been any place socially besides immigrant-service programs, community college English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and homes of Russian friends from their church. They were apprehensive, yet pleased. Overshadowing their hope, however, was their growing sense of futility in learning English as a spoken language.n American involved with the program knew some Russian and talked with them at length. There was also an older Romanian couple with whom they spoke in Russian. The night’s highlighted country was Brazil. Two students from Sao Paulo prepared a dessert and described it in English. (Vladimir and Olga assumed it was fluent English from what they gathered by the teacher’s response.) There were, of course, the English lessons. An American teacher asked them questions in English from a book. When Vladimir’s turn came, he was able to give a halting response to one question, but the American had to help him with the second answer. Both times he was told that his answer was “good.” Olga could only shake her head and weakly smile when her turns came—she was afraid to try, though the American said something about, “That’s okay. Next week you will do better.”

Oops! Did Vladimir and Olga come to learn about Brazilian cuisine, talk in Russian, look at pictures, and hear other students and “Americans” talk? Or did they come to learn to speak English?

Every program will struggle at this point. However, I would encourage you to establish priorities and stick with them.

  1. Most of all, teach spoken English. Vladimir and Olga would have been more satisfied with the evening if each had been given an MP3 player with Spoken English Learned Quickly Lesson 1. (Downloadable for free from If a language aide had shown them how to use the player, and if they had spent an hour and a half in intense speaking practice, they would have been speaking English. When leaving, they could have felt that they made progress in the area of their greatest need.
  2. Meet the students’ felt needs, but do it outside of language instruction time. The American who spoke Russian could have asked Vladimir and Olga if they were having any problems. Had Vladimir mentioned that they were having a problem with their car insurance, the American could have arranged to talk with them after class. After class, the American could have offered to write a letter to their insurance company for them. Vladimir and Olga would have been immensely encouraged.
  3. Be ingenious in providing variety in the spoken English exercises. If it is a two-hour evening session, provide a short break after the first hour. But persistently teach spoken English. (This means that the student—not the teacher—is speaking English.)
  4. Understand that you will not succeed with every student. There is a reason why English class “social hours” work as well as they do. Many non-English speakers have learned that they can spend two hours a week in a program that is not demanding, and still satisfy themselves that they are “learning English.” However, no matter how long these students are in the program, they will never learn to speak English well.
  5. Instead, set your sights high and reach those who genuinely want to work hard. You will see a demographic shift in your students. Rather than attracting those who want to find an easy non-solution to their language predicament, you will attract students who want to work and will reward both themselves and you with their success. 

If you are involved in a non-profit (church) language program, you will certainly face the problem of socialization versus language instruction. I encourage you to carefully assess your purpose in conducting the class. Socialization is important. But find creative ways of accomplishing that by using others’ assistance. Do not sacrifice spoken language instruction for it. In the long run, you will give your students far greater satisfaction by teaching them to speak English than you will by letting them sample the cuisine of other countries.

You have a marvelous tool available to you. Spoken English Learned Quickly is a high-level spoken English course which is being used worldwide. Yet, you can download it free and make copies for use in your own program. You can also give students the material to study on their own during the week. Establish the reputation that your program is the place to come to learn spoken English quickly.