Socio-Cultural Influences in English Language Learning
Learning a language is an extremely difficult process, especially if it is a second language that is being learned after am individual has already established knowledge of another language. Students whose original language was something other than English have a unique set of challenges in learning English as their second language. Issues at home with their parents often not knowing English themselves can create a situation where the learner does not get the same kind of support as was seen in the development of the first language. By understanding how important culture is in acquiring language can ultimately help empower ELL initiatives in schools. Thus, because culture helps support English as a second learned language, it is crucial that ELL programs work to provide cultural instruction alongside language instruction in order to get the best results for the majority of the students involved.
English language learners, also known as ELLs, are people of all ages, but are often found in our nation's classrooms. Essentially, ELL is "the term for students who first learn a language other than English in their home and community (U.S. born or immigrant) and then learn English as a new language" (Harper & Jong, 2004). Thus, an ELL student can be an immigrant, but also the child of an immigrant who was still born here in the United States, but learned another language at home before learning English in the context of a classroom. English is a difficult language to learn, as it does split from the traditions and tenses of the Romantic languages, including Spanish, which is one of the second most widely spoken languages here in the United States.
The ongoing discourse regarding learning English as a second language has shown the connection between culture and language. Essentially, cultural influences help strengthen language acquisition, both in the classroom and outside of it. In order to understand this relationship, it is first important to define what culture is. Here, the research claims that "culture may be thought of as an individual's and/or a group's values, beliefs, notions about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and other socially constructed ideas that members of a culture are taught" (Enlance, 2006). Culture is a socially construction abstract concept. It is the shared values and beliefs that hold groups of people together and enrich the lives of the individuals living within those shared communities. Language is one of the most commonly shared aspects of a culture. Therefore, "language is therefore a powerful and transformative tool of culture. Like culture, language is learned, it is shared, and it evolves and changes over time" (Enlance, 2006). There is a strong connection between language and culture. Previous research has demonstrated that the connection runs deeper than many might have believed in the past.
From the relationship between culture and language, it is clear that culture can play a powerful role in language acquisition. It is within the home culture that the first language is learned. Thus, it is important to structure cultural learning in second language acquisition as well as the first language acquisition. Essentially, learning about the language's culture helps open up new doors for understanding that language's basic components and structures. Moreover, it does help support the growing acquisition of that language as well. Thus, "ELL students must take on the challenges of learning English and U.S. culture, in addition to learning the academic content of the curriculum," (Abedi & Gandara, 2006). Culture can be a way for learners to experience and understand language on a much deeper and more personal level. Cultural learning therefore spearheads language learning (Wahlig, 2013). Just recently, the discourse has begun to understand "the importance of cultural education in English language learning" (Wahlig, 2013). In more recent years, ELL and ESL initiatives have restructured the way English is taught to language learners in American schools in order to increase the cultural lessons being learned simultaneously as well. Unfortunately, it is clear that "a lack of cultural knowledge of both the native culture and the target culture contributes to poor learning outcomes for English language learners" (Wahlig, 2013). Increasing the ability for classrooms to integrate culture into language learning therefore strengthens the ability for the learner to acquire English as a second language.
Thus, the overall strategy is not to recreate a new set of English speaking students, but bilingual students who integrate their culture and American culture in a shared and uniquely personal culture of their own. Bilingual students are essentially the product of cultural and language learning success. They represent the combined notions of multiple languages and cultures in harmony in a very diverse and modern environment. Here, the research claims that "bilingual proficiency can be thought of as a continuum along which bilingual individuals fall at different points, depending on the varying strengths and cognitive characteristics they exhibit in their two languages" (Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003). They utilize knowledge and fluency of both languages in order to participate in cultures, their original home culture and the adopted American culture. In this general correlation of the two, a new, hybrid culture is created that strengthens the proficiency of both languages simultaneously. Bilingual learners are thus in a new, hybridized culture of their own creation, which strengthens their ability to use and understand multiple languages. Here, the research suggests that "bilingual individuals perform differently from monolingual speakers on tests, as there are certain mental processes and abilities that are specific to the condition of being bilingual" (Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003). When an ELL student does begin to master English, they can still keep their proficiency in their first language. This has spearheaded academic strategies to incorporate new, hybridized bilingual cultures into classroom learning. Learning from a bilingual status is the combination of the two languages and cultures in order to create a new experience for the language learner to adopt as his or her own. That language learner can then go spread aspects of American culture and the English language in the culture of their own, by working to support English adoption in their home environment as well, even if in a limited degree.
The home atmosphere that surrounds the language learner is also a major element of support for acquiring a second language. The research does show "the important role that English oral language development can play in the overall process of English language acquisition. With development and increased proficiency in English, ELLs are better able to engage in more academic uses of language" (Genesee et al., 2005). Thus, English learners need the exposure and support at home in order to best acquire English efficiently. Yet, "overwhelmingly they are reared in homes in which English is not the primary language spoken," (Abedi & Gandara, 2006). In most cases, parents can not support the new language acquisition of their children as they did with the first language acquisition of the native tongue because they are not familiar with the grammar and syntax rules of English themselves. Therefore, parents often can not be used as a support system to help structure English language learning in the home environment. However, this does not change the importance the role of the home environment plays on language acquisition. How can ELL students get support at home to help them adopt English acquisition if their parents are often not a part of that support system?
Further connections to another cultural group can also strengthen English learning as a support system to help improve the capacity of ELL speakers. Essentially, learning a language also "involves emotional identification with another cultural group" (May, 2011). One has to understand and speak to members of another cultural group in order to become fluent in the language being learned. The more exposure one has to such cultural influences, the stronger and faster that learner will develop the second language. Clearly, "learning another language is much more complex than learning another school subject because it involves the acquisition of skills and behavior patterns of another cultural community" (May, 2011). It is a social process and thus immersion into the social structure of the culture is necessary.
The home environment is not restricted only to one's parents. In fact, one can be supported by a number of other factors and individuals from within the home environment that actually can help with the acquisition of English as a second language. Here, the research claims that "with increasing English oral proficiency, ELLs are more likely to use English, and increased use of English tends to be associated with subsequent gains in English oral proficiency" (Genesee et al., 2005). Thus, they need to be exposed to English at home in order to help support their ability to understand and use it in the classroom. There are a number of ways in which this can be done. For example, American culture is pervasive, even in home environments where English is not the original language. American culture still enters the home environment through television,…