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Factors in learning second language and culture.


The focus of this study was to identify factors which enhance or complicate second language learners' acculturation and language acquisition processes. The researchers conducted structured interviews at a southern California high school with a diverse population of English Language Learners. The students' experiences of making linguistic and cultural transitions revealed some common patterns as well as individual needs. The language proficiency profiles varied considerably, suggesting that educators must have a firm grasp of language development pedagogy to address their English learners' needs.


How do English Language Learners (ELLs) describe their experiences in high schools? What levels of English proficiency are brought from their home countries? How do acculturation dynamics impact language acquisition? These questions were central to the research conducted with a diverse population of secondary language learners. The study's purpose was to (1) identify the students' English proficiency levels, (2) examine factors which enhance or delay second language learners' acculturation and language acquisition processes, and (3) consider how the two processes might be interdependent.


The population of ELLs nears two million in California schools. Under current State laws, every teacher has the responsibility of instructing language learners in mainstream classrooms. Proposition 227 in the 1990's practically dismantled bilingual programs and made allowances for one year of transition instruction for children learning English. Now both experienced and new teachers are assumed to be culturally and linguistically trained--capable of working effectively with language learners. Yet recent teacher credentialing legislation (SB 2042) requires no foreign language training for teacher candidates, plus expects language and culture content to be delivered in general education courses by all teachers, regardless of their area of expertise, language learning experience or training depth.

In this climate the typical English learner in California attends classes with mostly native English-speaking peers. It is no wonder that the achievement gap between them and other students continues to widen in spite of the fact that every teacher is supposed to be doing his or her part in the ELLs' language development (Freeman & Freeman, 2002). A recent comprehensive review of state instruction points out that there is little equity in the instructional services English learners are experiencing in schools across California. For example, Rumberger & Gandara (2004) document that ELLs are more likely than any other children to be taught by teachers who are not fully credentialed. Many teachers report not having sufficient training to work with English learners in their preliminary credentialing programs or in subsequent professional development. Another complaint surrounds the lack of appropriate materials and texts for students learning English (Fisher, 2001).

Because of the circumstances surrounding ELL education, it is of interest to take a close look at actual students to learn how they experience their own schooling. It is also important to examine students" English skill levels and the academic challenges they face as well as the context and significance of factors contributing to acculturation processes.

Theoretical Framework

Many factors govern learners' progress in second language and culture acquisition (SLA). Intrinsic factors such as students' motivation, emerging linguistic and cultural identity, study strategies, tolerance for ambiguity, and sociocultural support or pressure are examples of factors determining the learners' success in mastering second language (for an extensive explanation of the SLA process, refer to Brown, 2000.) Immigrant students enter the public school system at different ages and under very different circumstances. Although the majority of English learners in California have Spanish-speaking backgrounds, other significant language groups exist also. The students' first language (LI) can contribute to the challenges encountered in mastering English. In addition, the relative prestige of L1 has a clear impact on how the students are being perceived by their peers and teachers. Diaz-Rico (2000) cautions that it can be quite difficult for students to feel proud of their cultures, if they suffer from low status in the majority culture, which, in turn, affects the rate of their second language (L2) acquisition.

Besides L1, both prior experiences in English study (formal or informal) and time spent in the US impact how soon students can be expected to interact with their English-speaking peers. It is estimated that Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) take most learners a few years to develop whereas achieving Cognitive and Academic Language Competence (CALP) is an effort that requires several additional years to accomplish (Cummins 2001). Freeman and Freeman (2002) have categorized ELLs into three distinguishable groups: Newly Arrived Learners with Adequate Fonnal Schooling, Newly Arrived Learners with Limited Formal Schooling, and Long-Term English Language Learners. All three groups struggle to learn English and content at the same time but have additional issues based on literacy and educational history in either language. In other words, no two English learners are alike, even when they come from the same L1 background.

What individualizes and complicates the SLA process further is that "one's self-identity is inextricably bound up with one's language, for it is in the communicative process ... that such identities are confirmed, shaped, and reshaped" (Brown, 2000, p. 64). Guiora (1972) proposed the concept of language ego as being a key factor in difficulties for adult language learners. Their whole self-identity is questioned when fumbling through the maze of a new language. Brown (2000) suggested that learning a second language is actually the same as acquiring a second identity and that L2 learning success depends largely on one's ability to become vulnerable and strong enough to suffer through the phase of inhibitions and insecurities.

Learning a language equals learning the culture which birthed it. Schumann's (1976) hypothesis is that the greater the social distance between the two cultures, the more difficulty the learner experiences in learning the second language. Psychological distance between the two cultures can predict the potential success in one's SLA process. Motivated L2 students with a positive attitude toward the target language and culture are more likely to be successful than those whose feelings toward the same things are negative or fearful. However, Chiang and Schmida (2002) in their studies of linguistic identity and ability discovered that they do not always go hand in hand: one may feel connected to the culture but not be able to connect with it linguistically. According to the same authors, the students' feelings toward the culture have little to do with what comes out of their mouths in terms of quality and quantity of their new language. Identifying with the new culture and developing a new identity is tension that not all L2 learners can resolve. Hawkins (2004) believes ELLs are like apprentices who need to be taught not only the language of the school but also the sociocultural behaviors and beliefs of the school community. Without this process, the second language learners cannot find their social status in the school context, which, in turn, affects their participation and status, both of which lead to more language and interaction. A hopeful possibility is explored by McCafferty in reconceptualizing adolescent identity "as it relates to representing oneself in a second language--culture is considered in relation to the interface between language, culture and cognition" (McCafferty, 2002, p. 1). He contextualized language and cultural learning holistically, as it takes place related to gender roles, family and community responsibilities, and the social world around the adolescents. Part of the focus of this study was to hear the students' experience of their entire learning context.

Method, Participants, and Procedure

Initially, more than 30 immigrant students at a local high school were asked to participate in the project. The ESL program director assisted as each student received a home permission form. Some were translated into Spanish or Indonesian. Eight males and seven females returned the permission slip. Both researchers were able to complete interviews with 15 freshmen to senior students, representing nine different countries. All of these students were in the category of Newly Arrived Learners with Adequate Formal Schooling (Freeman & Freeman, 2002). For the sake of anonymity, each student chose a pseudonym. [Figure ONE]

The students were interviewed to elicit a broad range of linguistic and cultural information. Both sets of interviews were tape recorded and transcribed. An abbreviated version of Spradley's (1977) ethnographic interviewing methodology gathered information about the ELLs' acculturation process. The following steps were appropriate to the students' language levels: 1) locating informants, 2) interviewing informants, 3) making an ethnographic record, 4) asking descriptive questions, 5) analyzing interviews, 6) making a domain analysis, and 7) discovering cultural themes. Transcriptions were coded into repeating and significant domains as they emerged from the data. Domain summaries were written for 14 topics the students mentioned or repeated (Spradley, 1977).

The interview technique used to learn about the students' English proficiency is the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL OPI). When administered officially, the OPI is conducted by two trained and certified interviewers. Its purpose is to elicit speech samples of foreign language speakers to identify proficiency. To an untrained listener, the entire interview sounds much like an engaged conversation.

The official OPI scale range includes four major levels of language proficiency: novice, intermediate, advanced and superior. Novices in a new language have no functional ability; speech is limited to memorized material. Those nearing the intermediate level can create with language, ask and answer simple questions on familiar topics and handle a simple situation or transaction. They speak in loosely connected sentences. The characteristics of advanced speakers are that they produce paragraph-length discourse. They can narrate, describe in past, present and future time/aspect, and handle a complicated situation or transaction. Superior speakers can support opinions, hypothesize, discuss abstract topics and handle linguistically unfamiliar situations.


The unofficial OPI interviews revealed that two of the students were very high novices or barely emerging intermediates, five were clearly advanced, and the remaining students were in the intermediate range. The most advanced speakers of English had certain common characteristics. They were critical of their English ability feeling the need to improve (accent, for example), yet they all liked English. They had had the most exposure to English use either at home, or in the US, or both. The advanced ELks had clear personal goals for their future, enjoyed reading or writing, and engaged in watching TV. They also expressed belonging to some in-group, for example, a circle friends or a sports team.

The profiles of the two weakest speakers were similar in that both had lived a relatively short amount of time in the US. Marte, a senior from Mexico, had studied in the high school for less than two years. He had advanced from no English ability to expressing himself in simply structured English. Here he was proud of his accomplishments, which included night school and work on the weekends. It appears that his prior schooling in Mexico was inconsistent or minimal. Brian, on the other hand, had a solid educational background in his native country of Malaysia where he had studied Chinese and English (8 years) besides his native language. His time in the US, one year, was even shorter than Marte's. During the interview he spoke very little and seemed not to understand what was said to him, explaining that he had never actually used English until he arrived in his California school. It is possible that he was very uncomfortable with the interview, regardless of the measures used to put him at ease. Nonetheless, with or without prior formal English study, Marie and Brian's oral proficiency were similar, with neither having used English for actual communication before.

As already stated, language proficiency was one of the topics that concerned the students the most. For example, Cecilia commented on her experience in her home country with learning English and then learning ESL in southern California:

C: Well, like here it has ESL programs so it's kind of easier. They know just what to teach to the people that just come from other countries.

Marte, who struggled with sell-expression in English the most, said the following:

M: Last thing--new teachers--take patience--like for the new learning--because is a hard language--so please!

Brian created a powerful image of the effort required to simultaneously learn the language of a new country and complex academic subject matter by saying that "steam ... steam" would come out of his brain especially in biology class. ELLs are, indeed, faced with learning multiple Englishes concurrently: conversational or home English, work related or professional English, and formal/academic English (Baker, in Delpit, 2002, p. 51).

Not all of the students felt they were acculturating or wanting to do so. Irene from Ukraine, for example, thought she would never be happy in the US. Sergio, like Irene, was equally unadjusted and unhappy, having difficulty establishing friendships at school. Both felt psychologically isolated and alone and did poorly in their academic studies with the lowest GPAs among the participants. Daniel's concern was that he wasn't sure whether people were sincere when they spoke to him; he couldn't read his American peers well yet. Gina's description of her gradual acculturation included the following quote:

G: I have more Korean culture than I have American culture. I'm still Korean, but ... I would be half-half.

The strongest developmental and acculturation areas affecting the interviewed students' perception of their language and academic learning were the following: language skills, school as related to teachers and instruction, race hobbies/activities, future plans, culture, friendships, homesickness, peers, career plans, support in the U.S., dating, trips home, and insider/outsider dynamics. Although outside of the scope of this paper, each domain offers rich information about the ELLs' experience in a US high school.

Summary of Findings

The findings of this study are two-fold, touching on issues of immigrant students' linguistic and cultural development in one high school. Second language proficiency appears to develop in sequential steps; the students' speaking skills emerged in a predictable timetable. Those with the longest exposure to communicating with native English speakers, with the added desire for mastery, had the strongest oral skills. It is noteworthy that not one ELL had mastered English in a year! Whether or not the students had actually studied English as a foreign language in their home country seemed also of little relevance in this regard. Prior formal study of English was reported helpful when these same students engaged in reading and writing assignments at school. Although some generalities emerged from the linguistic portion of this study, each language learner's English proficiency profile was distinctly unique.

The students in this study identified multiple factors in their struggles and triumphs in changing countries. They could describe their cultural experiences in both places as well as their attempts to cope with differences in schooling and living in general. A wide range of domains impacted the students' acculturation successes: language learning, school life, racial dynamics, hobbies and activities, making future plans, cultural differences, friendships, homesickness, peer relationships, career plans, support in the US, dating, trips home, and insider/outsider feelings.

Cultural experiences have a strong impact on the students' campus and community perceptions. The language learners found themselves entangled in complex multidimensional cultural webs which interact with language. They needed adult and peer relationships to sustain them while they were building new social relationships concurrent with new school and cultural competencies. Specific adult interventions were needed from coaches, teachers, family members, counselors, and other support people in their lives.

The implications of this study have a bearing on teacher education and the development of teacher skills. Both teacher educators and new teachers need an in-depth understanding of second language acquisition processes coupled with language development strategies to address the students' many levels of proficiency. "Lumping" all ELLs together as if they all had the same instructional needs is a mistake. Instruction of the English language itself should be done by those who have an interest and demonstrated expertise in teaching a foreign language rather than placing the burden on every teacher, no matter where their abilities lie. Teachers also need to be well versed in the cultural struggles and connections students are making, or needing to make, in order to be successful in their new culture. From this information gathering, teachers need strategies to adapt with particular students on how to build effective support systems and healthy activities in the new setting. This requires teacher involvement and strong motivation for working with transitioning students, as well as cultural and linguistic competencies. Perhaps the single most important part of impacting student acculturation is listening to the students themselves.


Brown, D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Chiang, Y. & Schmida, M. (2002). Language identity and language ownership: Linguistic conflicts of first-year university writing students. Enriching ESOL pedagogy, pp. 393-409.

Cummins, J. (2001). Empowering minority students: A framework for instruction. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 71, Iss. 4; p. 649.

Delpit, L. & Dowdy, J. (Eds.). (2002). The skin that we speak. New York: The New Press.

Diaz-Rico, L (2000). Intercultural communication in teacher education: The knowledge base for CLAD teacher credential programs. The CATESOL journal. Vol. 12, No. 1; p. 145-161.

Fisher, D. (2001). Teachers' perceptions of the supports and resources needed to prepare English language learners for the future. The CATESOL. Vol. 13, No. 1, p. 7- 21.

Freeman, Y. & D. (2002). Older struggling English learners. Closing the achievement gap. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Guiora, A. Z. (1972). Empathy and second language learning. Language learning. Vol. 24, pp. 111-130.

Hawkins, M. R. (2004). Researching English language and literacy development in schools. Educational researcher, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 14-25.

McCafferty, S. (2002). Adolescent second language literacy: Language-culture, Literature, and identity. Reading Research and Instruction. Vol. 41, Iss. 3; p. 279.

Rumberger, R. & Gandara, P. (2004). Seeking equity in the education of California's English learners. Teachers College Record. Vol. 106, No. 10, October 2004. pp. 2032-2056.

Schumann, J. H. (1976). Social distance as a factor in second language acquisition. Language Learning, Vol. 26, pp. 135-143.

Spradley, J. (1979). The ethnographic interview. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Marjo Mitsutomi, University of Redlands, CA

VernaLynn McDonald, University of Redlands, CA

Mitsutomi, Ph.D., is Director of Master's Program in Curriculum and Instruction, and

McDonald, Ed. D., is Assistant Professor in the School of Education, University of Redlands.
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Author:McDonald, VernaLynn
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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