Why we can't learn a language "on the job"

 Photo from Creative Commons user Andrew Affleck.

Photo from Creative Commons user Andrew Affleck.

This is the second in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city. 

As we meet and interact with our conversation partners we might notice that many of them have been living and working in the United States for a number of years and we might find ourselves wondering why their English proficiency hasn’t improved more in that time. There are two main reasons for this: (1) Many people who move to a new country end up doing manual labor jobs (even if they are overqualified for these positions) because they don’t speak English. And because these manual labor jobs often do not offer much opportunity for talking, it is near impossible to learn English “on the job”. (2) Any of us who have worked any job know that it is important to seem like we know what we are doing. For this reason, we are not likely to ask questions that show what we don’t know, especially if these questions are not even related to work (like – “How do you say this in English?”). This makes work an unsafe space in which to practice and make mistakes in language learning. This is part of why our Sunday morning meetings together are so great! They are pure communication spaces focused on language alone, where it is okay to make mistakes (and laugh about it) and to ask questions.

This information here mostly comes from Chapter 4 of an amazing book by Ingrid Piller:  “Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Linguistics”.