How do Individual Differences in L1 Skills Impact L2 Achievement?

This month we published Exploring L1-L2 Relationships by Richard L. Sparks. In this post the author explains how he came to write the book.

My research has addressed L2 learning from a different angle, namely that first language (L1) and L2 learning are similar. Given my background, my approach to research for L2 learning described in the book may not be surprising. I am a L1 educator whose specialties are learning disabilities, reading disabilities (dyslexia), language learning, and assessment. My study of L2 learning, and later L2 aptitude, was serendipitous and began when I encountered US college students with difficulties fulfilling their L2 course requirement. For several years, I conducted studies with secondary level students with L2 learning difficulties, but soon expanded my research to include both high- and low-achieving L2 learners. I speculated that there would be strong connections between students’ L2 achievement and their L1 achievement, an intuition that was quickly validated by my research. These findings encouraged me to continue this line of investigation for the simple reason that despite longstanding research by L1 researchers that had revealed individual differences (IDs) in all aspects of students’ language development by preschool age, there had been little or no research on L1-L2 relationships.

The book brings a new and different approach to the study of L2 learning, one that has been largely neglected by L2 educators and researchers – how individual differences (IDs) in students’ L1 skills impact their L2 aptitude and subsequent L2 achievement. Early on, my late colleague, Leonore Ganschow, and I developed a hypothesis which claimed that L1 and L2 learning have a common foundation – language ability. My book takes the reader on a journey over 30+ years in which our studies, some lasting 3-10 years, provided strong support for our hypothesis about L1-L2 relationships by showing that:

  • L2 achievement is reflected in students’ levels of L1 achievement
  • L2 aptitude and L2 achievement run along a continuum of very strong to very weak learners, just like L1 achievement
  • L2 learning problems are, first and foremost, language learning problems
  • L2 aptitude (like L1 ability) is componential and comprised of different language skills
  • L2 aptitude and L2 achievement are constrained (moderated) by L1 achievement.
  • L2 anxiety is largely determined by students’ levels of L1 achievement, L2 aptitude, and L2 achievement

A valuable section of the book introduces the reader to evidence for the strong relationships between students’ L1 and L2 reading skills in alphabetic languages through the use of the Simple View of Reading model. This research supports L1-L2 connections for reading and demonstrates how to evaluate students’ L1 or L2 reading skills in English and Spanish through the use of accessible assessment tools. Another important contribution for L2 educators is the discussion throughout the book of the concepts of inter-individual and intra-individual differences, culminating in a new, heretofore unpublished chapter in which I review the extensive literature on IDs in L1 ability and provide a tutorial on how to understand IDs in, and the connections between, L1–L2 skills. The tutorial explains that there is variation – often substantial variation – between and within individual learners, and variation in IDs profiles across multiple characteristics. The tutorial also shows how learners’ inter- and intra-individual differences in L1 are manifested in their L2 aptitude and L2 achievement. The book concludes with presentation of my model of future directions for L2 research.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Explorations of Language Transfer by Terence Odlin. 

Issues with the Current State of the ELT Industry: Why This is the Right Time for My Book

This month we published Antisocial Language Teaching by JPB Gerald. In this post, the author explains why the time is ripe for his book to be released.

Anyone who is affiliated with language education in some capacity is likely aware that there are issues in the field. Depending on your vantage point and level of progressiveness, those issues generally include hierarchical and exclusionary practices such as native-speakerism, so-called “accent reduction”, and the policies that descend from raciolinguistic ideologies, or the association of deficient language with marginalized racial groups. We language scholars and practitioners have, in articles and presentations and books, been trying to address these issues for decades now, and yet many of these barriers remain firmly in place. In my new book, Antisocial Language Teaching: English and the Pervasive Pathology of Whiteness, I make the argument for why we seem to be so ideologically stubborn.

Simply put, all of the issues above – to which you can add the ravages of capitalism and the way that colonialism continues to shape our field – are tied to the belief that certain people and groups are inherently disordered and in need of correction. My own research is based around the intersection of race, disability, and language, but, though it does not factor into my book, you can add religion and gender and other axes of oppression to this as well. Unfortunately, we have been forced to reform our field inch by inch, focusing on intertwined issues separately and thus leaving the overall harmful structure in place. As a rhetorical device, I use the diagnostic criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka DSM-5) to make the point that the way our field was built and is currently maintained could be classified as deeply disordered and only isn’t because of who currently benefits from the system as is; more specifically, I map the seven criteria of antisocial personality disorder onto the connection between whiteness, colonialism, capitalism, and ableism and how these and other -isms harm the vast majority of the students – and educators – in the field of language teaching. Whether you end up agreeing with my argument or not, I do hope you give the book a chance to both inform and entertain you, for I believe that our discipline’s conversation has yet to feature the particular angle I am putting forth, and I also believe that we will never get out of our current cycles if we don’t try something radically different, a vision I put forth towards the end of the work.

The book has just been released, and if you are interested, you can order it here. If you’d like to have a good faith conversation with me about the issues, feel free to find me on twitter: @JPBGerald.

JPB Gerald, EdD, is a graduate of the Instructional Leadership program from CUNY – Hunter College in New York, USA. He works in professional development for a not-for-profit organization.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Bilingualism for All? edited by Nelson Flores, Amelia Tseng and Nicholas Subtirelu.

Why Should Forced Migration be Considered in Research on Language Learning?

This month we published Language Learning and Forced Migration edited by Marte Monsen and Guri Bordal Steien. In this post the editors explain why it’s important to consider forced migration in language learning research.

When you listen to debates about migration in some European countries, you might get the impression that the rest of the world spend their life waiting for an opportunity to pack their bags and penetrate the European borders. As academics living in Norway, we are used to a discourse where adult language learners are portrayed as people who came to Norway voluntarily and need to meet strict Norwegian language requirements to prevent too many others taking the same journey. Researchers on second language acquisition also tend to view second language learning for adults as voluntary, and of course, many people both move across borders and learn new languages voluntarily for work, for studies or even just for the sake of new experiences.

However, many people experience that they are moved across borders with force. In Norway, the immigration policies are strict, so migrants coming to Norway from outside the EU will not be able to settle in Norway unless they are in special need of protection, such as UN resettlement refugees. Adult second language learners in Norway are thus usually forced migrants. In our work, we have met people who have been forced from their homes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often by means of cruelty beyond our imagination. They have fled on foot to Uganda, where they have lived a rough life in a sort of limbo, as they know their life in Uganda is only temporary. Under these circumstances, many of them have learned new languages through communicating with people “in the streets”, and many of them have large language repertoires. After years in transit, sometimes decades, they have been resettled in Norway, where few or none of their current language resources are valued. Entering many countries in the Global North entails forced attendance of classes to learn the host language, as is also the case for Norway.

The language courses and language tests that the migrants will come up against in Norway and other European countries are based upon the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). A well-known critique of this framework is that it allows policymakers to easily use language proficiency levels as standards and gatekeepers, while the empirical foundation for these standards is weak, and while the descriptions of language proficiency in CEFR initially was developed to measure foreign language learning by students. Well used concepts within SLA that might further guide the language courses, like Selinker’s theories on interlanguage or various models of motivation or investment in language learning, are also based upon knowledge from students or voluntary migrants. This means that a large number of people that attend language classes in the Global North enter a system that lacks knowledge of their language backgrounds, their needs and their lived experience.

Because of the unique situation of refugees and other forced migrants, we believe we need a research agenda that takes into consideration the experiences of people who have been forced to cross borders. That is what we hope to initiate with our book Language Learning and Forced Migration.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Crossing Borders, Writing Texts, Being Evaluated edited by Anne Golden, Lars Anders Kulbrandstad and Lawrence Jun Zhang.

Language Learning in Primary School: Positive in Theory, Negative in Practice?

This month we published Early Language Learning in Context by David Hayes. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book. 

This book has its origins in my experience as a teacher, teacher-trainer and researcher in a variety of countries in Asia during my career and is also influenced by my own childhood educational experiences. Research tells us that access to high quality education, particularly basic education, offers one of the most important routes out of poverty for children born into poor and/or marginalized communities. That education ideally includes the opportunity to learn another language which has many potential benefits for children. For example, it can have a positive impact on children’s general educational achievement, it can help to develop intercultural competence through learning how the new language views the world as well as helping learners to reflect on their own language and culture from a different perspective and, when children leave school, it can even provide a competitive advantage in gaining employment in certain sectors of the economy.

The language that most children are offered in schools across the globe is English, which is closely linked to national economic needs in an era of globalization. However, the English as a foreign language education that many children receive (and the largest proportion of these will be the urban and rural poor) is often very far from high quality and demotivates rather than motivates them to learn. So there is a conundrum, one which I’ve had to face in much of my work: learning another language in primary school is good for children in theory but often a negative experience in practice.

I have been involved in several projects in different countries over the years designed to improve the learning of English in state education systems which, without exception, focus on ‘improving’ teachers’ pedagogical skills and ‘upgrading’ their English language competence. Though these projects have been well-designed and have had admirable objectives, the factors involved in successful language teaching usually extend beyond ‘improving’ English teachers to those which impact education more generally. It is difficult to provide high quality English language teaching without high quality education as a whole. Hence, this book discusses foreign – primarily English – language teaching in its wider socioeducational contexts to try to understand the place of languages in those contexts and the factors that either promote successful foreign language learning or hinder it.

The book also questions the wisdom of focusing so much on a powerful international language, English, when other languages may be available locally or regionally which would carry more meaning for children in school and then perhaps be easier for them to learn. If children develop a liking for languages closer to their experience early in their schooling, this might help the learning of an international language such as English later on. My main professional concern is with the education of the children of the poor and disadvantaged and a goal of the book is to encourage reflection on more equitable provision of language learning opportunities across educational systems, as a prelude to change in those systems. Without change at the system level, (English) language learning will just be one more obstacle to achievement for the world’s poor rather than an opportunity for their advancement.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Assessment for Learning in Primary Language Learning and Teaching by Maria Britton.

What Affects the Uptake of and Access to Foreign Languages?

This month we published Discourses, Identities and Investment in Foreign Language Learning by Jennifer Martyn. In this post the author explains what inspired her to write the book.

The story of this book goes back to my own history of language learning. Access to other languages at an early age outside of the classroom context stands out as being crucial in not only developing my own plurilingual repertoire, but also in piquing my interest in the way in which language learning is socially situated and a fundamentally political activity that can draw in some whilst excluding others. 

A range of contradictory discourses surround foreign language learning (foreign language learning usually describes classroom-based learning of a language that is not generally used by the speaker in their wider community). At secondary school, languages can be perceived as difficult and inessential, but also assets in the jobs market. Language learning is sometimes also perceived as something that girls and women are better at, an ideology that stubbornly endures.

Although each person has some degree of agency in terms of whether or not they choose to study a language or which language to study, we are all very much influenced, whether we are aware of it or not, by the discourses of language learning that circulate in our communities and across wider society. Languages are talked about and represented in a myriad of ways, all of which mediate our perception of them and our learning experiences. Whether or not one has access to a language, both in the literal and figurative senses, can also determine language learning experience. Some of us have access to other languages from an early age, while others do not. Nor are all languages valued equally in the marketplace and in wider society.

As a socially situated activity, language learning, then, is far from straightforward. Structural barriers, gendered language ideologies, and discourses of elite multilingualism, for instance, coalesce to make language learning seem difficult, unnecessary, uninspiring, or simply ‘not for us’. In the Irish context, there is limited research on sociolinguistic perspectives on foreign language education, particularly at the secondary school level. By employing an ethnographic perspective, this book investigates what young language learners think about language learning, while locating their experiences and beliefs within broader societal discourses and practices. It is hoped that this book contributes to a discussion of the social forces that mediate the learning experience in Ireland and elsewhere.  

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Portraits of Second Language Learners by Chie Muramatsu.

L2 English Use Online and Its Effects on Language Learning

We will soon be publishing Second Language Use Online and its Integration in Formal Language Learning by Andrew D. Moffat. In this post the author explains what inspired the book.

Over a decade of teaching English as a second/foreign language, I was increasingly struck by the range of internet-facilitated, English-language encounters, that my students and the students of colleagues seemed to be having on a regular basis. Kids who were chronic homework-shirkers but avid Call of Duty players disrupting lessons with shouts of “FIRE IN THE HOLE!!”; adults who were shy in class – and not necessarily very ‘advanced’ from a formal perspective – but could be drawn into discussions about their participation in English-language Facebook groups – one chap was a keen amateur astronomer and moved in English-language astronomy spaces online; young adults working in global-facing companies that needed to use English in very ‘real’ situations. I was fascinated by these little windows into the L2 lives of my students, and in particular by the fact that they didn’t seem to do these things to ‘practice their English’ – these were not learning activities per se.

I also reflected on my own Spanish development while living in Spain.  I had some semi-formal one-on-one lessons and spent a fair amount of time doing grammar activities on the beach, but when I was actually interacting within the local community – renting an apartment, grocery shopping at the market, arguing with my bank about unfair account charges – I didn’t feel at all that I was a Spanish ‘learner’ in those moments.  I was just getting things done with my Spanish – pretty important things sometimes, like registering the births of my twin daughters at the Registro Civil. I wasn’t there to learn Spanish, and yet I distinctly remember the word ‘hembra’ – ‘female’ – lodging itself in my long-term memory after that particular experience.

It seemed to me that there was much more to language learning than the language classroom. I certainly felt that I grew the most as a Spanish speaker in those meaning-driven interactions, and I could see that same kind of development in the kinds of students mentioned above – even though I was fortunate enough to be living in an immersion environment and they were not. Could the internet be providing opportunities for the kinds of interactions and exposure more typically associated with ‘live-abroad’ learning? And what should I be doing about it as a language teacher?

These observations and interests came together in the research underlying Second Language Use Online and its Integration in Formal Learning.  The book explores L2 English use online, its effects on language learning, and how classroom practices can and must adapt to embrace learners’ online interactions. It reports on a survey undertaken in partnership with Cambridge University Press that garnered over 10,000 responses from L2 English users in 157 different countries, providing an empirical evidence base of unprecedented scope attesting to online interactions, concerns, and difficulties. This is partnered with a corpus analysis of the Cambridge and Nottingham E-Language Corpus, exploring the idiosyncratic ways in which English is used in different forms of computer-mediated communication. Together these form the basis for a needs analysis for the 21st century, hyper-connected English learner, and a proposal for addressing these needs in the classroom.

I’m hugely grateful to everyone at Multilingual Matters for facilitating the publication of this work, and genuinely proud to be able to contribute a volume to a book series that has provided so much inspiration for my own academic work and development.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Second Language Literacy Practices and Language Learning Outside the Classroom by Miho Inaba.

How Can Foreign Language Teachers Draw on Learners’ Existing Linguistic Resources to Promote Multilingualism?

This month we published Theoretical and Applied Perspectives on Teaching Foreign Languages in Multilingual Settings edited by Anna Krulatz, Georgios Neokleous and Anne Dahl. In this post the editors explain how the book came about.

We are absolutely thrilled to announce the publication of our edited volume titled, Theoretical and Applied Perspectives on Teaching Foreign Languages in Multilingual Settings. When we first embarked on this journey, it was late summer 2018 and the three of us (Anna, Georgios, and Anne) were sitting at a coffee shop in Lisbon where we were attending the International Conference on Multilingualism, enjoying pastel de nata and our morning coffee and reading through a large pile of chapter proposals that were sent to us from many corners of the world. We didn’t realize then that working on this book would be so rich in rewarding challenges and opportunities for growth, span four continents, and connect scholars and teacher educators working in diverse contexts, to finally reach the printing press after a worldwide pandemic and four years of commitment from so many people who have been involved in this work.

Our interest in editing this volume originated from the arduous challenges and new realities that students and teachers encounter in increasingly linguistically diverse settings around the world. With the intention of meeting the needs of these stakeholders and of providing them with the best possible resources and practical applications, the main objective of this volume is to advance a discussion of how to best connect the acquisition of subsequent foreign languages (FLs) with previous language knowledge to create culturally and linguistically inclusive FL classrooms, and to strengthen the connection between research on multilingualism and FL teaching practice. Contributors were invited to present new approaches to FL instruction in multilingual settings forged in collaboration between FL teachers and researchers of multilingualism.

Originally, we wanted to limit the chapters to contributions from Western contexts, but it soon became clear that the scope would be much wider. We received excellent proposals from scholars working in multilingual settings in places such as Indonesia, Japan, Australia, USA, along with various European countries, and Multilingual Matters and anonymous book proposal reviewers encouraged us to include chapters from parts of the world outside of Europe and North America. We are grateful for their support and advice, and we hope the readers will appreciate the transcontinental scope of the volume.

This book is a result of our (the editors’) and the contributing authors’ commitment to support what we believe to be a universal human right – namely, to be multilingual and freely choose which language(s) to use for communication in any given context, and to draw on whatever available linguistic resources one has to develop a competence in additional languages. As so many other researchers, teachers, and teacher educators working within language education, we recognize that despite an increasing body of research on multilingualism and multilingual learning, FL classroom practices often continue to be monolingual and characterized by strict separation of languages. Such learning environments do not foster language learners’ engagement with their existing linguistic repertoires as a potential resource for FL learning.

An additional challenge is that there seems to be a gap between the advances that have been made through research and FL classrooms where teaching practitioners continue to report a lack of preparedness to work with students who are multilingual. To address this issue, the chapters in this volume aim to promote linguistically responsive language teaching practices in multilingual contexts through forging a dialog between school-based and university-based actors. We hope to advance a discussion of how to best connect the acquisition of subsequent FLs with previous language knowledge to create culturally and linguistically inclusive FL classrooms, and to strengthen the connection between research on multilingualism and FL teaching practice.

We are grateful to all the chapter authors, who have contributed papers reporting on fascinating, novel, and important research that meets this objective. For instance, some of the contributions present proposals for how language education can be reconceptualized if linguistically responsive teaching and learning are applied across disciplines, language barriers, and educational models, while others outline analytical and instructional frameworks for working with multilingual learners. In addition, some of the authors discuss specific classroom examples of cross-linguistic influence, code-switching, and translanguaging to illustrate the role of learners’ linguistic repertoires in FL learning. Our contributors also present new approaches to FL instruction in multilingual settings where the perspectives of FL teachers are in focus, delving deeper into the skills and knowledge that should be addressed in preparing teachers for work in multilingual settings and providing some tentative recommendations for what to incorporate into a teacher training programs in multilingual contexts. We also hope the readers will enjoy the concise, yet extremely insightful and structured Afterword written by our colleague Kristen Lindahl of the University of Texas, San Antonio.

Overall, we believe that the volume contributes to the current debate on how FL teachers can draw on learners’ existing linguistic resources to promote multilingualism and to forge a dialog and bridge the divide between university- and school-based actors. We are truly grateful to the Multilingual Matters staff who supported us along all the stages of this amazing journey. We are absolutely thrilled and humbled that the volume bears their trademark.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Migration, Multilingualism and Education edited by Latisha Mary, Ann-Birte Krüger and Andrea S. Young.

Language Transfer: History, Translation and Metalinguistic Awareness

This month we are publishing Explorations of Language Transfer by Terence Odlin. In this post the author discusses the book’s main themes.

Readers of Explorations of Language Transfer will notice several recurring themes, themes that have long seemed to me important for the study of transfer. I’d like to offer some remarks on three of those topics here: history, translation, and metalinguistic awareness.

History

Chapter 2 of the book examines parts of the challenging trail left by nineteenth century thinkers including Wilhelm von Humboldt, Hugo Schuchardt and Aaron Marshall Elliott. Space did not allow a discussion of certain other thinkers from that time who also wrote about bilingualism, such as the Italian historical linguist G.I. Ascoli. If I ever have the chance, I would like to read more about his analysis of how transfer might be manifest in linguistic variation across space and time. Furthermore, I suspect that interesting discussions of transfer go back before the nineteenth century, but if so, the trail may prove a little harder to explore.

Translation

Chapter 7 focuses on translation and transfer. The ongoing refinements in machine translation, one of the topics in this chapter, should be taken seriously by teachers and researchers even while professionals will do well in advising their students to distrust uncritical reliance on translation software. Yet machine translation is not the only area of interest. In the same chapter, I also consider the efforts of a Victorian translator named Mary Howitt who, despite her keen interest in Scandinavian literature, did not always succeed in accurately interpreting the work she undertook. Her translation errors often suggest negative transfer in her reading comprehension. Howitt is probably far from alone in the history of less-than-satisfactory translation, but there does not seem to be much detailed research investigating such cases. This domain, then, may well deserve more exploring.

Metalinguistic awareness

Our awareness of language, often called metalinguistic awareness, proves important in learning a new language, and it interacts with transfer in diverse ways. Without such awareness we could not compare anything in one language with anything in another, nor could we ask for definitions, let alone translate individual words or entire sentences. Even so, individuals vary considerably in how they use such awareness and in how they develop it further. Chapter 8 considers, among other things, successful attempts to foster such awareness. For example, raising consciousness about crosslinguistic similarities and differences has proven effective for helping learners recognize words that are real yet not obvious cognates. The attempts discussed did not involve French, but I think back to my own experiences with high school French and imagine how helpful it could have been if we beginners had gotten a little guidance in recognizing consistent formal relations in pairs such as côte/coast, fête/feast, and pâté/paste. Pairs of this sort also make a good case for why language teachers should have some knowledge of historical linguistics including sound changes.

I naturally hope that readers of Explorations of Language Transfer will find the themes outlined here worth reading about in greater detail, and I also hope that the book will inspire readers to engage in their own explorations of the similarities and differences between languages that can intrigue as well as challenge any learner.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord.

A Tribute to Michael Byram’s Work on Intercultural Learning in Language Education

We recently published Intercultural Learning in Language Education and Beyond edited by Troy McConachy, Irina Golubeva and Manuela Wagner. In this post the editors explain the motivation behind the book.

There are scholars in every field who stand out not only because they have contributed to significant advances in thinking but also because they have devoted so much of themselves to the development of educational practices and the advancement of scholarly networks. This book is dedicated to one such scholar – Michael Byram – whose work on Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) and Intercultural Citizenship (ICit) has helped educators working within and beyond the field of language education to promote intercultural learning in their classrooms.

This is a book which aims to capture the far-reaching influence of Michael Byram’s work and the various ways it has helped shape the work of individual language educators, professional organisations, and other communities of practice. Simply put, what really motivated this book was a collective sense of wanting to create an opportunity for a range of international scholars to critically engage with Mike’s work based on a sense of gratitude and respect. We felt that this was important given the extent of Mike’s contribution to the field and his generous support for others.

In Part 1 of the book, contributors have looked at the theoretical and pedagogical significance of key concepts that have emanated from Mike’s work or have important connections with it, such as ICC, language awareness, intercultural mediation, ICit, intercultural dialogue and intercultural responsibility. Authors have aimed to consider how understandings of these concepts have evolved over time, given changing contexts and additional knowledge gained in related fields.

Meanwhile, in Part 2, chapters look at perspectives and practices associated with intercultural learning in a variety of contexts, including student mobility, service learning, teacher education and assessment, professional organisations, communities of practice, just to name a few. These chapters capture some of the many ways in which Mike’s work has inspired educators to enact intercultural learning, taking into account the need for locally appropriate pedagogical practices.

One unique feature of this book is that it includes a number of tribute chapters from those who have collaborated with Mike in different capacities. These chapters help further illustrate elements of Mike’s personhood and reveal his selfless support for scholars and colleagues worldwide.

As a whole, we feel that this book not only offers important research insights but also embodies the sense that being able to read, appreciate, and critique scholarship is an important privilege. We invite readers to engage with the research of scholars in the field and the memoirs shared by those who have had the privilege to work closely with Mike on a variety of projects. We hope that this book can serve as a model for a genre that brings together critical engagement and appreciation for the contributions of those who influence research and practice in such important ways.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence by Michael Byram.

Why Do Adult ESL Learners Drop Out?

This month we published Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL by Taewoong Kim. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

“I need English to protect my kids. My 9 and 11 year-old daughters translated in an emergency room 18 years ago when my husband died due to cancer. It was so sad. I couldn’t speak English, couldn’t protect my kids. I wanted to tell doctors, ‘talk to me, don’t touch my kids,’ but I couldn’t. I always want to learn English, but I dropped, because teacher didn’t care for us, never prepared. We did the same thing for 3 days. It was waste of time.” (Irma, pseudonym)

Like Irma who immigrated from Mexico to the US, 28 million immigrant adults have a strong desire to learn English. Despite their busy lives, usually a life marked by struggle as they navigate living in a new country, they often persist in learning English (Comings, 2007; Darvin & Norton, 2012). However, sometimes adult ESL learners drop out without giving a reason (Comings, 2007).

When adult immigrant ESL learners drop out of their ESL classes, administrators’ comments often include: “they are busy” or “they don’t have transportation,” or even “they are not smart enough to take the class.” When adult ESL learners drop out, they “disappear” without a word. Then, those administrators’ apathetic comments and thoughts linger in the empty spots of the learners. Are those reasons – being busy, having no transportation, or being not academically ready yet – the real reasons that adult ESL learners drop out? In my five years of ESL teaching experiences, I witnessed that many adult ESL learners persist in learning in spite of their busy and hard lives. What indeed made such persistent learners drop out?

This question led me to start this research about why adult ESL learners continue or drop out of their classes. This book, Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL, is the result of the qualitative study that explored six immigrants’ unheard voices over their journeys of learning English and living in the US.

Superación, meaning self-improvement or self-actualization in Spanish, was reported as a thematic desire for why adult English learners want to invest in learning English. When their ESL classes did not support their Superación, the adult ELs dropped out. Other themes that support students’ staying in class include: learning something new, caring feelings, and comprehensible instructions. Each individual’s Superación has different characteristics such as being able to support and protect children by using English like Irma, pursuing job promotions, and becoming a better person.

As for dropout factors, this book adapted the Push, Pull, Fall Out framework (Doll et al., 2013). I found that the adult English learners were not passively forced to drop out of their ESL class, rather they actively made their decisions through their rigorous, systematic, and thorough evaluation of the class. When the learners see that the class does not support their Superación, the learners evaluate that the time they spent is wasted, which triggers their final decision to say “me no more come.” Among the three constructs of dropout – Push, Pull, and Fall Out – the data revealed that the students were pushed out by the less-meaningful instructions, unrelated topics, and teacher apathy.

Understanding Success and Failure in Adult ESL sheds light on the importance of the probable interplay between cognitive and affective aspects in learning English. Although both aspects work together, when students drop out, affective aspects seem to play a stronger role. Based on real-life stories, rigorous thematic data analysis, and academic discussions, the readers will not only enjoy reading unheard and authentic voices from the margin, but also gain new insights about how to make instruction more engaging.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education by Yasuko Kanno.