Focus group moderators asked participants if they were in the process of learning English, and what challenges they faced trying to learn the language. Participants shared various ways they learned or improved their English skills.
Taking English classes
Many participants shared that during their childhood they were enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) courses as part of their school program. Others who arrived in the country as adults mentioned that they were able to join English courses offered by organizations in their communities or cities.
“When I came [to the U.S.], I studied English. I joined an ESL class for about six months. After six months, I got direct college entry. And then I finished school. Finished school. Now I also work as an interpreter.”
–Immigrant woman of Burmese origin in early 50s
“My wife thought I should first familiarize myself with the environment, so I first went to ESL courses. The main thing was to develop my listening and speaking skills. And also to build up my experience in communicating with others.”
–Immigrant man of Taiwanese origin in early 40s
“Even though I have lived in the United States for more than 10 years, it always felt like that being fluent in English remained a question. Now that my children have grown up, I have a lot of time. That’s why I’m enrolled in an adult school to take an ESL course. … Online adult school and ESL programs are well-organized because of COVID-19.”
–Immigrant woman of Korean origin in early 40s
Meanwhile, other participants shared their experiences of learning English prior to coming to the U.S. yet still facing language barriers related to their accents because they learned English from British teachers.
“Before I left Vietnam, I studied English. I learned British English accent in Vietnam. I had a problem with my accent here.”
–Immigrant man of Vietnamese origin in late 40s
“While I studied in Nepal, I studied in an English medium school and they taught us British language, and here, American English is used. … I felt that the tone of my speech is different, the way of speaking is different than the native speakers … words were different and even meanings were different.”
–Immigrant woman of Nepalese origin in late 20s
Connecting with English speakers
Many participants shared how they learned English simply by trying to talk to native speakers as much as possible, from new friends to co-workers to other people in everyday life. While many made this a casual everyday practice, some mentioned attending meet-ups and language exchanges in their new home cities.
“I go to meet-ups every weekend. There are Americans who want to learn Korean and Koreans who want to learn English, and I go there for the purpose of language exchange. Everyone really likes Korean culture and they welcome me just because I am Korean, so I feel very close to them. After the meet-up, we eat together and hang out, so I often attend those meetings.”
–Immigrant woman of Korean origin in late 20s
Some participants recalled their decision to purposely live in a place without other immigrants from their own ethnic group. This allowed them to immerse themselves in American culture, including English language, and offered an opportunity to practice speaking with native speakers.
“In my case, I came to live here permanently and wanted to get accustomed to local society, so, it might sound weird, but I have avoided seeing Japanese people as much as possible. If I got a chance to talk with a Japanese person at a Japanese supermarket, of course I would have a friendly conversation, but as for where I would live, I intentionally chose an area with few Japanese people so that I could speak English like a native speaker as quickly as possible and live here permanently.”
–Immigrant woman of Japanese descent in mid-40s
“At first, I moved to stay away from the Vietnamese people to avoid coming in contact with them, so that I could have more opportunities to interact with the native Americans. I wanted to speak English so I could practice my English. After I feel that my English is [strong] enough to communicate and study this and that, I want to return to the Vietnamese area.”
–Immigrant man of Vietnamese origin in early 20s
Consuming more English-language media
American pop culture and media served as an important tool in many immigrants’ English-learning journey. Focus group participants shared how watching American television, listening to radio and podcasts, and reading publications in English helped them improve their comprehension, speaking and writing skills.
Watching, hearing and reading media in English was a particularly useful strategy for those who said they were busy with school, work or taking care of kids. One Korean male in his early 40s said, “I’m busy and I don’t have time as I have to take care of my kids, so my only English study is to listen to American broadcasts in my car for an hour of commuting. That was the only time I had to study English.” Absorbing American media was important in different ways to others as well.
“I would increase reading. I started reading American newspapers, then books, and now watching TV, movies, these streaming platforms were all in English. And then I switched everything into English on mobile phones, computers, etc.”
–Immigrant woman of Chinese origin in early 30s
“I would keep my podcast on all the time. And when I was free, I would keep it on as background sound. It was to see if I could absorb any new knowledge.”
–Immigrant woman of Taiwanese origin in mid-20s
“[I learned by] watching all English programs on TV with subtitles. When I talked to my boss about this, he suggested that I should watch English programs I like, but should use subtitles. He told me if I don’t understand, then I should go back and see after rewinding what has been said. In this way you will catch the slang of this place. … He used to suggest that I may watch as many Hindi programs as I like but I should make sure to watch English movies. … For better understanding, we used to replay everything that was not understood, by rewinding. In this way, my English got better to some extent.”
–Immigrant woman of Indian origin in early 50s