The Language of Adult Immigrants

Earlier this month we published Elizabeth R. Miller’s latest book The Language of Adult Immigrants. Here, she explains a bit more about how the book came about.

The Language of Adult ImmigrantsI am excited to have my research finally appear in book form. The folks at Multilingual Matters have been remarkably helpful, courteous, efficient, and professional throughout the long process.

I have been interested in learning more about the experiences of adult immigrants for a number of years and most of my publications draw on the things I have learned as I interacted with these individuals, in ESL classrooms and in interview conversations. I am repeatedly impressed by their ability to create lives for themselves and their children in situations where so much of the linguistic, cultural, and social activity around them is strange or inaccessible.

One woman whom I interviewed for this book told me that her husband helps out in her nail salon because of a workplace injury that had occurred a number of years before and that left him unable to do heavy physical work with his hands. She recounted that while he was fixing some equipment owned by the cement company he worked for, he cut his hand and arm badly. But instead of letting the injury heal properly, he took off the binding wrapped around his hand and went back to work because he was afraid he would lose his job if he didn’t. She said, “We don’t know and we don’t know everything and we don’t understand. We don’t speak English.” As a result of not knowing what he could or could not do in that situation, and fearing the worst, his hand and arm are permanently disabled.

It doesn’t take an applied linguist to discover that the lives of first generation immigrants are often difficult and marked by feelings of helplessness, as illustrated in my interviewee’s account of her husband. And yet the individuals whom I interviewed for this book had all managed to open their own businesses. In many cases they were rearing families. And all had managed to learn English—often not in ESL classrooms but through informal interactions in their workplaces.

How did they see themselves as able to pull off these accomplishments despite the daily difficulties that are part of the immigrant experience? That was one of the questions that motivated my attempts to better understand the notion of agency, especially in relation to their acting to learn English.

The understanding I have come to at this stage in my research is that it is problematic, sometimes dangerous, to “place” agency “inside” people.  But, as with all complex human experiences, there is another “side” to this perspective.  I have also come to understand that when we accept or perceive that we are agentive beings, we are motivated to take actions that are often difficult and require extreme effort. There is no simple, tidy explanation for agency and language learning. In fact, it took a whole book for me to grapple with it.

If you would like more information about this book please go to our website.