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Issues in Improving Immigrant Workers' English Language Skills

Miriam Burt
Center for Applied Linguistics
December 2003

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2003), at the beginning of the 21st century, 12% of the U.S. labor force were foreign born. Of the foreign-born workers in the United States, 22% held jobs in the service industry, 18.3% worked in factories and as laborers, and 12.6% worked in construction, mechanics, and repairs. Statistics further showed that immigrants were under represented in managerial and high-level sales positions and that their salaries remained lower than those of native-born workers: 54% of the foreign-born population working full time held low-income jobs compared to only 38% of native-born working full time.

Literacy and fluency in English seem to be related to economic self-sufficiency. Immigrants who are literate only in a language other than English are more likely to have noncontinuous employment and to earn less than those literate in English (Greenberg, Mac'as, Rhodes, & Chan, 2001). An analysis of the 2000 U.S. Census data on immigrant earnings revealed a positive relation between earnings and English language ability (Chiswick & Miller, 2002). For this and many other reasons, immigrants want to learn English. Forty-two percent of the participants in federally funded adult education programs are studying English (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Yet barriers such as time, transportation, and childcare may keep many from attending classes (Van Duzer, Moss, Burt, Peyton, & Ross-Feldman, 2003).

Offering English as a second language (ESL) classes on the job is a way to provide instruction to those who have problems accessing programs outside of work. Learning in the context of work can improve work skills while improving language skills (see, e.g., ABC Canada, 1999; Burt, 1997; Hayflich, 1995; Mikulecky, 1992). Yet it appears that few employers provide this instruction (National Institute for Literacy, n.d.). Reasons that employers do not offer training include scheduling issues, cost, perceived lack of benefit to the company, and a sense that it is not their responsibility (Burt, 1997; Kavanaugh, 1999; Pierce, 2001).

This brief identifies five issues to be addressed in improving the English language skills of immigrant workers and provides suggestions for addressing these issues through workplace instruction.

Issue A: The Length of Time It Takes to Learn English

Both employers and employees often have unrealistic ideas of the amount of time it takes to learn English (Burt, 1997; Kavanaugh, 1999; Mikulecky, 1997; Pierce, 2001). Research is limited regarding adults learning English (Van Duzer, et al., 2003), but studies with children reveal that it takes from 2-5 years to become socially adept in a second language and from 5-8 years to become academically on par with native speakers (Cummins, 1991; Thomas & Collier, 1997). Clearly, a workplace ESL class of 40-60 hours is unlikely to result in great gains in language acquisition. When workers continue to speak to one another in their native language during breaks and on the work floor, employers may become disillusioned. Then, when the workplace classes are over or when economic support for the classes is no longer available, employers often discontinue the classes (ABC Canada, 1999; Burt, 1997; Kavanaugh; Pierce).

Issue B: Language Use in the Workplace and Elsewhere

Sometimes there is a naivete about the use of language in general. Even if it were possible for workers to learn enough English in 50 hours to express themselves clearly and to understand everything that is said, it is unlikely that many workers would use the new language when speaking to other native speakers of their language. In order to choose to speak a language, there must be a need to speak that language (Burt, 2002; Hayflich, 1995). In the workplace, code switching (shifting from one language to another language in the course of a conversation) can occur with bilingual workers. For example, in a conversation held in Spanish, workers may give names of workplace machines and procedures in English. In a conversation in English, abstract concepts and personal opinions may be better expressed in Spanish. Code-switching and choosing to speak one language with one person and another language with another person to facilitate ease and comprehensibility of communication, can indicate bilingual proficiency rather than linguistic deficiency (Milroy & Muysken, 1995).

Recent research looks at how instructional contexts also affect motivation. A learner's motivation may vary from day to day and even from task to task (Dornyei, 2002b; Dsrnyei & Kormos, 2000). Using varied and challenging instructional activities helps learners stay focused and engaged in instructional content (Dornyei & Csizer, 1998). Research examining how to improve learner motivation suggests that social factors (e.g., group dynamics, learning environment, and a partner's motivation) affect a learner's attitude, effort, classroom behavior, and achievement (Dornyei, 2002b). Therefore, teachers should create an environment that is conducive to learning by encouraging group cohesion in the classroom. Pair and group work activities can provide learners with opportunities to share information and build a sense of community (Florez & Burt, 2001).

Issue C: Language and Identity

The decision to use or to not use the target language and the accompanying (in this case, mainstream U.S.) workplace behaviors may also be affected by a desire to maintain one's identity. Some immigrant workers may feel empowered when they use English and try out new workplace behaviors on the job (see, e.g., ABC Canada, 1999; Li, 2000). Others, however, may make a conscious decision to not use the new language as a way of asserting their own social identity (Moore, 1999; Pierce, 2001). In her ethnographic study of a cable manufacturing company in California, Katz (2000) reported that even though workers were instructed to speak up on the job and they understood that this was a behavior that could lead to promotions, many chose to hold on to their behaviors of not standing out in the crowd.

Research on the relationship between motivation and second language acquisition is ongoing. Current research looks at instructional practices that teachers use to generate and maintain learner motivation and strategies through which learners themselves take control of factors that have an impact on their motivation and learning, such as lack of self-confidence, change of goals, or distractions (Dornyei, 2003; Noels, Clement, & Pelletier, 2003).

The decision to not use the new language and behaviors may also be affected by the attitude displayed by employers and co-workers when immigrant workers try out what they have learned. At one work site, learners trying to speak English at team meetings reported being laughed at by native English-speaking co-workers for demonstrating nonnative-like pronunciation (Moore, 1999).

Issue D: Relationship Between Training and Worker Performance

Not all workplace misunderstandings are due to poor English skills. Problems can arise from diverse causes such as poor organization of work flow; poor supervision; and poorly written workplace materials, e.g., signs, manuals, and memos (Westerfield & Burt, 1996). Worker productivity deficits may also be due to the way the workplace itself is structured. For example, use of technology, labor-management relations, and compensation offered may affect worker performance. Basic skills or English language training will not ameliorate these issues (Sarmiento & Schurman, 1992).

Empirical research with second language learners supports the contention that engaging in language interactions facilitates second language development. Findings from a study to determine how conversational interaction affects the acquisition of question formation indicate that interaction can increase the pace of acquisition (Mackey, 1999). Research on interaction includes studies of task-based language learning and teaching and focus on form.

Even in situations where worker improvement is noticed, it may not be due solely to workplace training. An analysis of a database developed by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) to explore the connection between employer investment in training and company performance concluded that, although firms that invested in training seemed to be more productive than those that did not, it was difficult to tie higher performance levels directly to the training offered (Bassi, Harrison, Ludwig, & McMurrer, 2001). In any case, those involved in workplace training report that when there is little or no opportunity provided for the workers to use the new learning, it will not be retained (Kavanaugh, 1999; Pierce, 2001; Sarmiento & Schurman, 1992).

Issue E: Measuring Outcomes

Measuring training and instructional outcomes can be problematic (Affholter, 1995). In classes for immigrant workers, there can be a lack of clarity about the outcomes being sought, i.e., an uncertainty about whether the instructional goals are improved productivity or workers speaking English on the job (Kavanaugh, 1999). Often goals are not clearly stated at the outset of the course, monitored throughout the course, and then evaluated at the end (Affholter). In short, program providers may not know what to measure, how to measure, or when to measure outcomes of the training.


Offer short, highly focused classes with clearly stated, measurable, and attainable objectives

Providing short, targeted classes with limited goals can be effective in the workplace (Burt, 1997; Kavanaugh, 1999). A 6-week course on accent reduction in Pima County, Arizona, for example, has been popular both with employers and with immigrant workers who have at least an intermediate level of English. Similarly, with pre-literate Latino housekeepers, a 3-week course with the three goals of greeting residents, supervisors, and co-workers; expressing lack of comprehension; and asking for clarification has been successful at a nursing home in Falls Church, Virginia (Burt, 2002).

When classes are focused and objectives are clearly stated and realistic as to what can be accomplished in a short time, it is easier to assess and monitor outcomes. Workers are more likely to complete a 6-week course than one that lasts 4 months. Furthermore, if the classes are carefully scheduled so as not to be held during rush times, there is less likelihood that the worker will be pulled from the class to go back to work (Kavanaugh, 1999).

Educate everyone about the process of learning a second language

Few people in this country appreciate the difficulty of learning and using a second language. More than 82% of the people in the United States speak only English (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Employers, native-English-speaking workers, and immigrant workers all need to appreciate the challenges of learning to speak English on the job. Educators report the value of using "shock language" classes (a short lesson taught entirely in a language unknown to anyone in the room except the instructor) with employers to give them a brief introduction to what foreign-born workers face in an English-speaking environment (Schrage, 1997). Giving native-speaking workers a shock-language experience could likewise increase their understanding of the complexity of learning a new language and help them become more supportive of the immigrant workers' attempts to try out new language and behaviors on the job. This, in turn, would motivate the immigrant workers to use what they have learned on the job.

Use the native language

Limited use of the native language in workplace instruction, particularly in work sites where much of the workforce speaks the same native language, can help avoid miscommunication and can deepen learner comprehension of difficult concepts (Katz, 2000; Moore, 1999; Taggart & Martinez, 2003). Because bilingual instruction does not imply translation of all course content but rather a judicious choice of which language to use for which purposes, bilingual teachers need explicit criteria concerning when to use the native language and when to use English (Taggart & Martinez). The workers' native language should be used to teach difficult content that they need to know in order to do a task. Then the English vocabulary and structures they need to read, listen to, write, and talk about the tasks should be taught (Taggart & Martinez).

Huerta-Mac'as (2003) offers another model for using two languages: A topic is introduced in the native language; key English vocabulary items are taught; hands-on activities (such as those involving workplace machines) are carried out in English and assessed in English; technology activities follow, with discussion in the native language; and the final discussion and question and answer activity is carried out in whichever language each individual student prefers. When the class has speakers of several different languages, Huerta-Mac'as suggests dividing the class into same-language small groups for discussion of the workplace issues in their native language. Each group then, in English, frames questions about the workplace issues for the teacher.

Get the leaders involved

It is professional wisdom in workplace instruction that, before beginning the classes, the instructor needs to get all the support of all employer stakeholders including chief officers, human resource personnel, and direct supervisors of the workers (Alamprese & Kay, 1993; Burt, 1997). However, worker leaders need to be involved as well-if not directly in the classes, as least as advocates to encourage others to attend (Pierce, 2001). They also need to be involved in planning the classes, setting the goals, and advising the educational service provider. The message that needs to be sent to the immigrant workers is that value is placed on learning English both by the employers and by fellow employees (ABC Canada, 1999).

Provide opportunities to use English on the job

Pierce (2001) describes a workplace where the company established and publicized a process for achieving promotions or higher pay. One of the skills workers had to demonstrate was a certain level of English literacy and oral proficiency. There are other ways, however, to encourage the use of English on the job that do not involve formal assessment of skills: Instructors can invite supervisors to visit classes; they can also encourage supervisors to have conversations in English with the learners about what they are learning and about their job tasks. Employers can promote discussion among native and nonnative English speakers on the job through English language discussion tables at breaks (Burt, 2002) and mentoring or tutoring by the native speakers (Pierce). This tutoring should not be seen as a substitute for language instruction given by a trained instructor but rather as ancillary support. Because merely speaking a language does not give one the skills to teach someone else to speak the language, native speakers who are tutoring co-workers in English should be given training. This training can often be provided for a modest fee through local literacy agencies or other English language service providers (Stuart, 1994).


English language ability is related to higher wages and more stable employment, yet little training is currently offered to immigrants at the workplace. Issues in providing this instruction include unrealistic expectations both of what can be learned in a short workplace class and how quickly language and cultural behaviors can and should be changed; difficulties in defining and assessing outcomes; and a lack of value placed on the instruction. Research is needed on the use of the native language in workplace instruction; on the efficacy of short-term classes; and on creative ways of providing, monitoring, and assessing English language instruction on the job.


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This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.