How many times are ESL students told to ‘go out and speak English?’ The possibility of using the target language outside the classroom and the school is surely one of the strongest rationales for learners to come to an English-speaking country to learn the language. Theorists of second language acquisition have proposed that ‘negotiation of meaning’ with native speakers will provide learners with the comprehensible input they need to make progress, making access to native speakers important to that progress. As Bonny Norton points out in the 2nd edition of her book Language and Identity, getting that access is not so simple.
Like the five immigrant women in Norton’s 1990s research study, for international ESL students “the opportunity to practice speaking English outside the classroom is dependent largely on their access to anglophone social networks” (p. 172). But getting into those networks is challenging because the ability to speak English is necessary to enter them. Back in 2012 we learned that many international students on college campuses fail to make any close U.S. friends for this very reason. And according to Norton, even in interactions between native and non-native speakers, native speakers are often unwilling to engage in negotiating meaning, placing the burden of comprehensibility on non-native speakers. I saw this first-hand at a campus Dunkin Donuts: two students from China had difficulty communicating their order to the server, who offered little in the way of ‘negotiation.’ When the students left, the server, shaking her head, turned to her colleague and sighed, “They don’t know how to order.” It is unlikely the students’ learning of English was enhanced by this encounter. As Norton writes of her research participants, “native speakers of English were often impatient with their attempts at communication and more likely to avoid them than negotiate meaning with them” (p. 150).
ESL programs for international students can mitigate some of these challenges through careful programming that brings students into meaningful contact with native or more proficient English speakers. Some examples (the first two are from my workplace but I take no credit for them):
- The Showa Friendship Circle at Showa Boston matches pairs of students with people in the community who have a genuine interest in getting to know international students. Students and ‘friends’ are chosen and matched carefully to maximize the chance of a positive relationship and the opportunity for language learning. Students and their friends arrange meals together, visit local places of interest, or take trips.
- The College Connection Program, also at Showa Boston, similarly matches international students with students from local colleges. Groups of students are carefully selected, matched, and oriented. They plan several activities together, and the international students spend a day or two visiting the campus and sitting in on classes.
- Meetup.com makes it possible for international students to find people in the community who share an interest. While international students in such groups may need to gain confidence and find their voice, meetups do offer a legitimate ‘way in’ to meaningful interactions that can lead to friendships and enhanced language learning. ESL programs can help students by orienting them to the app or website, supporting them in finding appropriate meetups, and giving them advice on language and behavior to optimize their experience.
- Finally, let’s not forget homestays, which, if successful, can offer an enriching language experience in which the student’s voice is welcomed. ESL programs must select and monitor homestays carefully and ensure they are not simply seen by the host as ‘renting out a room.’ Hosts must be willing to spend time talking with their students and engage in the negotiation of meaning that will help the students make progress.
I have barely touched on the riches that Norton’s book offers. Her stories of each research participant are compelling and memorable, and will offer anyone in the field of language teaching new insights into the learner’s experience, and ways to empower students to find their voice in the target language.
Language and Identity (2nd Edition, 2013) by Bonny Norton is published by Multilingual Matters.