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ESL from the Inside

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by Gregory Keech

Imagine yourself in Beijing, or Cairo. You did not finish high school in your home country. You know nothing of the language, and you don’t even know the script. You are working full-time, perhaps at two or more jobs. You have a partner and several children, and maybe an elderly relative to care for. You have concerns about health care, childcare, and education for your kids. You go to school at night with 30 to 50 other students to learn the local language, but you miss class frequently because of all these other concerns. How long does it take you to attain college level written and spoken proficiency in the target language?

When people are having a hard time understanding why it takes ESL students some time to acquire the language, I often resort to this guided visualization. Monolingual English speakers usually have the same answer to the question: How long would it take you? Their answer is: Never. I could never do that.

There are number of misunderstandings about ESL and ESL students, but this is probably the most unfair. Immigrants are frequently expected to do things that native speakers would have trouble doing.

There are a couple of other common misunderstandings.


When I tell folks that I teach English as a Second Language, one of the most common responses I get is: “Oh, you must speak a lot of languages to be able to do that.” As a matter of fact, many ESL instructors do speak one or more languages besides English, and this has its advantages, but it is tangential to ESL teaching methodology. While bilingual classes at the beginning level exist and are effective, large public ESL programs with diverse student populations usually start at the very beginning – in English. “My first name is… and “My last name is…” have a surprising amount of shelf life, but again, imagine yourself in Beijing. How long would it take you to figure out that Chinese does not put it together quite the same as English? 您貴姓?is not the same as 你叫什麼名字?

Another frequent comment ESL teachers hear is: “Why do you have so many levels? People need to get on with getting a job or a degree, and the length of your program holds them back.” If your ESL sequence goes from, say, Level 1 to Level 8, it is tempting to believe that students must begin at Level 1 and continue through to the end of the sequence, something like beginning with Econ 101, and then taking Econ 102 and so on. This is how most people have experienced a sequence of college courses, after all.

They may not be aware that ESL students, like Math and English students, usually take a placement test. This determines their level of proficiency, and it is not a forgone conclusion that students will begin in Level 1. It depends on the population. If you have a lot of students who lack prior education from their home countries, your placement tool may produce a lot of beginning level results. And if you have a lot of students who have high school educations from their home countries, you are more likely to be placing in the middle of your sequence.

The other part of the question about the length of the sequence reflects an underestimation of the time it takes to acquire a second language. Monolingual Americans learned their first language as children, and it took them quite a few years. Second language acquisition operates in a very different way, especially after puberty, and the fluency of a first-language speaker is very difficult to attain. It just plain takes time.

And now we’re back to Beijing, or Cairo.


1. If you are an ESL teacher, how do you explain ESL to folks outside the profession?

2. If you are not an ESL teacher, what do you wonder about ESL? What do we need to explain better?


KQED offers a wealth of ESL Resources for Educators at www.kqed.org/esl

Gregory Keech is the elected chair of the Department of English as a Second Language (ESL) at City College of San Francisco – comprised of 250 faculty members and serving over 25,000 ESL students a year. Its curriculum encompasses literacy to advanced composition, in both credit and noncredit modes. The department complements academic pathways already in place for its students with strong pathways to the many Career and Technical Education certificate programs at the College.

Greg holds a BS in Portuguese from Georgetown University (1980) and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from San Francisco State University (1985).

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